The following is an excerpt from Welcome to the Fifth Estate, Chapter 7: Sustaining Your Community Over Time
Who in their right mind would predict the death of Facebook, given its ever-increasing dominance? But everyone always asks, “What’s next?”
One thing long-term Internet citizens have seen over the past 30 years: Communities and social networks get large, even as dominant as Facebook now is, and then they fade.
Some stay relevant as leaders in their niches — YouTube, for example — and others drop into a second tier, or worse. Friendster, MySpace and AOL exist in some form to this day, but none of them enjoys the leadership positions and mindshare of their heyday.
One of the secrets to Facebook’s longevity is its replication of the McDonald’s business model. McDonald’s offers a cheap menu of foods and beverages that contemporary society demands. If a customer wants a latte, they can go to McDonald’s. Ice cream? McDonald’s offers soft serve. Salad? No problem! And McDonald’s still offers the now classic Big Mac, just in case someone wants a burger.
Facebook does the same with its social network functionality. It literally watches competitors create new features, and then it incorporates those functionalities into its network, competing head-to-head in that functional space. Facebook relies on its incredibly large user base to accept and use the new features. We saw this with Facebook Places and the competition it offers Foursquare. Other examples include:
- Facebook Pictures competes with Flickr
- Facebook Video competes with YouTube (this feature does as well as a McRib sandwich on market share)
- Facebook Chat competes with AOL’s AIM
- Facebook Questions and Groups compete with LinkedIn Questions and Groups
One could argue that the strength of this business model is also Facebook’s weakness. As we have seen over time, Facebook constantly updates its interface to incorporate these changes. This is relatively easy because of its text-based, three-column layout. While text allows Facebook to offer all of these features, the user interface has become clunky and cumbersome. In essence, being the McDonald’s of social networks has forced it into an over-reliance on text.
If a competing technology arose that provided a new interface, an almost completely visual tactile (touch) input to a social application, then Facebook would be challenged to completely redesign its web site. Several new apps on iPad have shown a new way to interact. Early signs show these applications are becoming immensely popular.
One iPad application, Flipboard, allows users to create their own magazines based on preferences and socially recommended content. ABC’s popular iPad app features a visual globe of news stories. Both application interfaces rely heavily on pictures with very few words, and why shouldn’t they, given that a picture is worth a thousand words?
It’s only a question of time—maybe even within the next two years—before a primarily visual-interface-based social network launches. Processing time, software development and bandwidth inevitably will increase to enable it. How will Facebook upgrade its interface to compete with this kind of innovation?
It would take an almost complete gutting of its social networking code. Facebook’s system has become so clunky that Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg can’t make changes that he wants to in order to open the network.Plus Facebook’s original feature of private, closed social networking was its big differentiator. The privacy tension caused by the movement toward openness continues to haunt Facebook.
Such a network upgrade likely would force Facebook to abandon users who are still text-based. It would be very hard for McDonald’s to keep serving Big Macs while offering a tastier Filet Mignon sandwich that holds market share (Angus Wraps aside). If you think Facebook cannot unseated,or it will not be by a tactile-input-based network, what about a video- based network? Bandwidth and technology permitting, how about Third Life, a better version of Second Life’s would-be virtual-avatar-based world, where interaction would occur in a computer-generated 3-D environment? Or a video-based network like, but more nimble than, the original Seesmic?
Isn’t it just a question of time before Facebook meets a competitor with a better, next-generation interface that it can’t match? Yes given the context of Internet history and technology development.
If a better, easier choice becomes available, you can expect people to spend more time on it than on Facebook. The Fifth Estate moves with what’s hot, and without thinking about the historical value of today’s technology platform of choice.
Business leaders and strategists cannot afford to become too entrenched on a mega social network like Facebook or Twitter. If an organization cannot move with its community because of an over-investment in one network, it loses the opportunity to serve stakeholders effectively.
The source material for this section of the Fifth Estate was originally published on this blog under the same title.