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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Decline of Facebook

We know that in the age of the internet, there's no safety from going stale. It's happened again and again. In fact, industrial-age companies went stale all the time. It just happens a lot faster on the internet.

The information highway is littered with the corpses of early pioneers. Even Yahoo was once the big cheese, now it's hard to see how they'll do anything but auger into the ground. I remember observing that Microsoft had hit a plateau back when no one thought it would ever stop growing. Ballmer was made CEO soon after and from that moment, for the last decade, the company has been angled gently downward, throwing bundles of cash at problems rather than at improving technology.

Facebook continues to grow, but it is heading for the rocks (or is already on the rocks, just too big to know it). Why? The disconnect between who it claims to serve, and its actual customers.

This company has a single product: Facebook users. Those users are indeed being served: served up to the advertisers, who are the actual customers. Unfortunately for Facebook, this requires the company to trick their users. And when the users realize they are being tricked, they will flee to greener pastures. It's even possible that the reason they haven't already fled is simply that the greener pastures don't exist (yet). When it happens, Facebook's single product will drain away overnight, never to return. Trust on the internet is hard to gain, and easily squandered.

What would constitute greener pastures? Well, one of my biggest problems is the one-dimensionality of Facebook. A person is either my friend, or not. But when someone asks to be a friend, there are many dimensions of possibility. They might live in the same town. They might be fans of my books and other writings. They might be family. They might be business associates. They might be liberal or conservative. The possibilities are great, but to Facebook it's either "friend or not." As a result, I have a rather large list of pending Facebook-friendships. When I try to think about what to do with them, I get bamboozled and run from the problem. Facebook doesn't care, as long as it can report big numbers to its true customers.

Over at Google, I use Reader a lot, and regularly forward articles to people I know will appreciate them. In fact, I have created little groups of friends -- but only in my head -- to whom I send different types of articles. The management of these groups is very limited, based on my limited brainpower.

I almost never post on Facebook because the gaggle of "friends" I have crosses all boundaries. For example, my niece is on Facebook, and some things I might like to say would be inappropriate for her, and possibly even offensive to some people on the list. So I end up offending no one by posting nothing (this adds to my reluctance to add new friends).

The next version of social networking -- the one that serves the actual users, and which Google could easily do -- will allow me to effortlessly set up groups and have people ask to be friends of a particular group. You could then be a "Crested Butte Friend of Bruce" or a "Computer Programming Friend of Bruce" or a "Family of Bruce," "College Friend of Bruce," "Business Friend of Bruce" and all the other possibilities that will emerge over time. This will serve me well. If I find an article about business that I'd like to discuss with like-minded people, I'll post it to that group. My niece won't see that, or any of the liberal stuff I'm prone to that her parents might find offensive. But if I'm heading home to visit the folks, the business people don't need to know about that.

It seems obvious to me when I think about it, but I doubt that Facebook will do it. It doesn't serve their business model.

Compare that to Google's model. The ads are quiet text, and I can easily ignore them. That's a nice balance between the needs of the advertiser and the needs of the user. I've actually bought things through Google ads several times. There is a level of trust there, and I don't feel like Google is abusing it.

Amazon is even better. They try to guess other things I might want to buy, based on what I've bought and looked at. In less-deft hands this could come across as annoying and intrusive, but with Amazon it feels like they're trying to be helpful, and I regularly spend time studying and exploring what they try to pick for me. Sure, they're trying to sell me more things, but it comes across as serving me (it also appears that they're constantly trying to lower or eliminate boundaries; Amazon Prime is a great example).

But not Facebook. They clearly don't have my best interests at heart, they treat me as an adversary, they don't seem to care about security (indeed, it often seems they are actively trying to compromise my computer), and they don't try to improve my experience. All their major arteries are exposed.