ONLINE: DEATH OF FACEBOOK Now everyone and his mother is on Facebook, is it time to look for the next big thing in social networking, asks Monica Hesse
FIVE YEARS FROM NOW, WILL internet historians signpost the Facebook movie, due out next year, as the beginning of the site’s end?
West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin is writing and producing the flick, called The Social Network, about Facebook’s birth. Jesse Eisenberg will play founder Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake will play Sean Parker, the first company president.
But will the real star be nostalgia? Will Facebook seem passé, like watching a film about the invention of VHS? A dramatisation of the site could turn it into a time capsule, with fossilised reenactments of the first friend poke.
If The Social Network isn’t a harbinger of doom, then what is? Last month, the site gained its 300 millionth user and turned a profit for the first time in its six-year history. Can we just Facebook forever, friend-requesting until we are officially connected to everyone?
One year into Facebook’s unchallenged social networking domination – three years ago this month from its availability to the public – and suddenly people are speculating about its demise.
Facebook feels “dead,” a columnist for the New York Times observes, saying that several of her friends have gone inactive.
“Did Facebook kill itself ?” asks the headline of a US News & World Report article.
“What’s new on the Net after Facebook?” writes a listless user going by Tabitha Flyin on Help.com. “I’m bored.”
All social networking sites die off, mutate or find a second life elsewhere, as evidenced by the ones that have come before.
But why are we so eager to move on?
Remember the mysterious invitations that appeared in your inbox? Someone cooler and more tech-savvy than you had joined and wanted you to join, too.
Remembering this is really about remembering 2003, because that’s when buzz about the site peaked. And then… Then everyone trekked to MySpace – the (same) invitation from the (same) cool person, the indie bands, the customisable backgrounds. That was 2005-06, although some may be there still. And then… Then Facebook. Especially for the college-educated crowd. Facebook groups, Facebook gifts, Facebook existential dilemmas over how to describe your romantic relationships and religious beliefs.
Along the way, you might have joined other sites – SixDegrees, Orkut, Bebo, but those were brief dalliances. Now it’s mostly Facebook, the fourth most popular website in the world, according to market research firm ComScore. And then? It’s an endless cycle of “and then”. Users update their statuses with one hand while packing for a Facebook exodus with the other.
The irony is that while we’ve been searching for the Next Big Thing, Facebook has never grown faster. The site trebled in the past year.
Despite those numbers, there’s the ennui. “After Facebook and Twitter what’s next on the horizon?” asks a user on Twitter.
It’s possible Facebook really is losing users – the company does not release its retention data, says spokesman Victor Lu. But it’s more likely that people are getting… antsy.
“Facebook as a social networking website is not dead,” S Shyam Sundar writes via e-mail. He’s the founder of Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory, where he studies the psychology of communication technology.
“Facebook as a cool new thing is.” FOR USERS NEW TO A SOCIAL network, the site becomes a full-time addiction. There are old high school teachers to be found, old school tormenters to gleefully reject, groups to join and then leave.
As each friend is added, there are profiles to stalk and dissect, and perfunctory “tell me about the last seven years of your life” e-mails to exchange. There is the endless care and development of one’s own profile, plus the quizzes and the lists.
After a while, a balance is reached. Users have found all of the people they are going to find. Visits to the site are less about building and more about maintenance. And while friend-collecting used to be the de rigueur Facebook activity, now it’s the friend purge.
Elliott Hoffman, a software engineer, describes how he went from 300 friends down to 70. “When I was in college and Facebook had just come out, if you met someone at a party you would friend them,” Hoffman says.
But as the site approached saturation, “I realised it was just too much noise.” He felt compelled to keep up with the minute activities of virtual strangers. Now, with his slimmer friend base, the time he spends on the site is richer in quality, but far less in terms of quantity.
For many users, this balance describes where Facebook is now. It might “feel dead” only in the way four beers might “feel meagre” to a recovering alcoholic who is used to drinking nine.
“It’s like that 46-inch LCD HDTV,” Sundar writes. “The first week with it was full of excitement with the technology itself, but now we simply switch it on and think about what’s on rather that what it’s on.”
“There are two conflicting processes,” says Jason Kaufman, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society who studies social networking sites.
“On the one hand, the more people who join Facebook, the more useful it is.”
On the other hand, it’s ubiquity makes some users uneasy.
“There’s a tendency… to want to do things that are not in the mainstream,” Kaufman says. “Americans don’t want to follow the herd, but they want the convenience of being in the herd.”
The fact that the fastest-growing Facebook demographic is users over 55 doesn’t help the coolness factor.
“By definition, it’s like barhopping,” says Kurt Cagle, an editor for O’Reilly Media, which publishes technology books.
“You want to go to ones before they’re popular. You don’t want to go to ones that are too crowded…
“No social media will have huge staying power.”
Hip bellwethers within the herd eventually start looking for another place to drink.
Is this what happened to Friendster?
Shortly after its 2002 founding, the site gained several hundred thousand users through word of mouth, but by late 2003 Americans began to leave.
They were irked by technical difficulties, frustrated by some policies, and a rash of mainstream media attention made the site feel crowded, writes internet scholar Danah Boyd in an essay on the history of social networking sites.
In early 2004, employees of the site noticed big traffic spikes were occurring in the middle of the night. Friendster, it seems, was huge in Asia. “We’ve never let the US go,” says Friendster communications director Jeff Roberto. “However, we are focusing on growth where we’re dominant and popular.”
Now the site has 115 million users, 90 percent of whom live in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The social networking site Orkut was a similar story – in its first year of existence, US users were the largest audience. But as North Americans got flighty, South American users got loyal.
Now the company is headquartered in Brazil.
One wonders if all social networking sites’ lifecycles eventually include a David Hasselhoff phase – snubbed in America, gangbusters in Germany.
But Facebook is in a different place from Friendster and Orkut, by sheer virtue of its enormous size, and by the amount of time users spend on the site.
People invest so much in social networking sites that it becomes harder to leave, says David Weinberger, a colleague of Kaufman’s at Harvard and author of Everything Is Miscellaneous.
In essence, the longer we’re on Facebook, the longer we’re going to be on it. The question of moving becomes not just logistical, but moral and ethical as well.
“So many years of contacts, conversations and games” between friends, Weinberger says.
“It’s hard to transfer that stuff. If I move to a new social network because it’s cooler, how much of you am I allowed to move?” And then… What comes after? Where would we move to? TRANSITIONING FROM Friendster to MySpace was an easy decision, when MySpace appeared to address Friendster user complaints (some people wanted to be allowed to create bogus profiles – say, one for Hermione Granger – but Friendster deleted the so-called Fakesters).
Then Facebook’s sparer interface and apparent privacy seemed to address some MySpace users’ concerns, making that switch easy, too. But many social networking experts say that there is nothing obviously poised to overtake Facebook now – just vague ideas of what such a site might look like.
“Putting profit and revenue aside, ultimately it seems like some kind of non-proprietary social networking cloud is where we would best be served,” says Kaufman.
Something that’s not trying to make money, where users can exchange info without worrying about being data mined or monetised. “That kind of thing doesn’t exist.” Not surprisingly, Facebook believes that the next big thing is… Facebook. (Full disclosure: Washington Post Co Chairman Donald E Graham sits on Facebook’s board.)
But assuming there is a next big thing after Facebook, it probably won’t be the social networking companies, or the scholars, or the journalists, or the film industry who accurately predict what it is. It will probably be the 16year-olds, same as always, finding their own parent-free space – followed by their parents, same as always, wanting to ensure that parent-free space doesn’t contain anything dangerous.
Then grandparents, celebrities, nonprofits, marketers.
By the time there really is a new big thing on the internet, we won’t realise it until we have all joined up. – The Washington Post