11.19.2013

Has the Fall of Facebook Started? What it Means for the Future of Social Media

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that among younger users of Facebook, those aged 18 to 29,  a crucial demographic for the future, 38%, that is well over a third of users said they would spend less time using the site this year. And a majority of users was found to have taken at one point or another, long breaks from Facebook, adding up to several weeks off the site.

Are we suffering from Facebook fatigue? Has the fall of Facebook started?

Some bloggers who loved Facebook when it first became big around 2004 (already ten years ago!) are expressing disappointment. They say it has "lost its edge" when everyone and his uncle came on board, and games on the site have become boring. Game and app developers, like Angrybirds, are going to Google+, eschewing the Facebook platform.  A growing number claim they no longer need Facebook, that Google+ looks better and that they get more interesting news from Twitter.The New York Times also took note, saying Facebook may be "losing its cachet" (see article below).

But all the analyses are fundamentally flawed. The NYT article, trying to sum up the situation, focuses on what it sees as an "app development" issue. 

But that's not what is happening. 

First, apps in the near future may no longer be needed if  browsers can directly bring to you websites such as Facebook on your mobile devices without the use of an app. Google's Chrome already does this. And in some cases (I have seen it), the image definition of Facebook on Chrome is even better than on the app. This is a result of the new "responsive web design", allowing for fluid grids and flexible images that adjust to your screen.

So apps could be on their way out. It's happening on Chrome, it could soon happen on other browsers.  

I think we are getting an inkling of the future in the surprising news about Snapchat, the latest and most sought-after start-up in the tech industry. Snapchat, a service that lets users send photo and video messages that disappear after they are viewed,  reportedly (see here) is rejecting offers.  

Hey, big surprise, it's not taking the money and running, like Instagram famously did! It brashly believes it can stand up to Facebook on its own.

Snapchat, a David against Goliath? Semil Shah, a Tech Crunch columnist and investor, believes it could (see here).  

I'm intrigued, particularly since a similar story happens to be at the heart of my book "The Phoenix Heritage" that I wrote in 2010, the same year the founders of Snapchat were working on their service (it came out in 2011). In my book, the protagonist, Tony Bellomo, a young Italo-American geek, invents a social media network to compete with Facebook. He calls it the "Chat Club" (or ChatKlub in the new revised edition of the book that I am working on and that will soon come out). 

There's an evident though totally involuntary connection in the name, although from a coding standpoint, Snapchat is totally different and comparatively simple, whereas my protagonist's ChatKlub was enormously complex: it assumed that users would be given the choice of masks to use and (if they so wished) hide behind when meeting "friends". 

Curiously, both Snapchat and the ChatKlub share the notion that is the exact reverse of what Facebook is based on, i.e. a person's real identity. The focus is on WHAT is exchanged, i.e. on enjoying the act of information exchange and not on WHO does the exchange.

This is a game changer the act of exchange, the information itself, becomes the objective of social interaction, the message comes forward while the messenger retreats into anonymity. The idea is no longer to build around your name  a personal collection of photos and a list of links to things you "like", which is, bottom line, what Facebook is all about - a place where people use every means they have available to scream "me". They build up their own personal "brand". Incidentally, Facebook is not alone. Google+ does the same with its relentless focus on "identity" and "authorship"...All of which can become tiresome after a while.

Personally, I find it very upsetting that Facebook should control how long my interaction stays up on their site, i.e. sharing stuff like "my status updates", photos etc. They want it up there forever on their "timeline" and I don't. My privacy settings could change overtime and I want control over that, something Facebook doesn't allow (if you want to delete your past, you can but it's hard work). 

Snapchat has gone to the other extreme, messages disappear soon after they're viewed (though you could, theoretically, take a screen shot). That particular "ephemeral" feature could (eventually) spell Snapchat's downfall too: it appears that much of its success comes from exchange of sexual content and it is easy to see how that could lead to improper use. And it certainly works to limit Snapchat's appeal among responsible adults. 

Still, looking at the broader picture of what's happening in social media, we are beginning to realize that, like in Grimm's tale "the Emperor's new clothes", Facebook may not be, after all, about socializing. If you want to stay in touch with your real friends, you pick up the phone or email them directly...

What's your opinion, do you think there's space next to Facebook for a network focused on content rather than brand building, on WHAT rather than WHO?  
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