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Facebook Too Shall Pass

We're leaving Facebook by the droves, we're terrified of what the website is doing to our daily lives, how it's using our data to create the most fine-grained graph of the world's personal connections, and utterly perplexed, and, especially after the...
January 14, 2011, 7:50pm

We’re leaving Facebook by the droves, we’re terrified of what the website is doing to our daily lives, how it’s using our data to create the most fine-grained graph of the world’s personal connections, and utterly perplexed, and, especially after the past few years, a little bit worried, that it could possibly be valued at $50 billion. It is, after all, just a website.

JK. We’re not really leaving Facebook. And most of our concerns about the site – ranging from privacy controls to its valuation – tend to flitter away as fast as your News Feed. Like our best friendships, Facebook is forever.

And yet, it is just a website, and one as susceptible to the viccictudes of the open web as any other giant web site before it. At least that’s Douglass Rushkoff’s point in a recent essay on CNN.com.

This isn’t the first time rumors of the site’s death have been floated. But this isn’t the first time we had an unstoppable, implacable, super-power web company either. (Two words: America Online.)

The object of the game, for any one of these ultimately temporary social networks, is to create the illusion that it is different, permanent, invincible and too big to fail. And to be sure, Facebook has gone about as far as any of them has at creating that illusion.

If you were there for Compuserve, AOL, Tripod, Friendster, Orkut, MySpace or LinkedIn, you might have believed the same thing about any one of those social networks. Remember when those CD Roms from AOL came in the mail almost every day? The company was considered ubiquitous, invincible. Former AOL CEO Steve Case was no less a genius than Mark Zuckerberg.

And as amazing as the Goldman Sachs deal was, it helps to feed an obfuscating hype – and of course to allow the company to expand at breakneck speed. That expansion is all about gathering more users, refining the algorithms, and keeping the servers running (to support 690 billion page views each month, and a Google-beating 9.5% of all Internet traffic).

But what happens once it’s got all of the users it can? How good will the algorithms be, and why will Facebook necessarily be the place we want to go to get them? Again, Rushkoff, who’s seen it all before:

social media is itself as temporary as any social gathering, nightclub or party. It’s the people that matter, not the venue. So when the trend leaders of one social niche or another decide the place everyone is socializing has lost its luster or, more important, its exclusivity, they move on to the next one, taking their followers with them. (Facebook’s successor will no doubt provide an easy “migration utility” through which you can bring all your so-called friends with you, if you even want to.)

We will move on, just as we did from the chat rooms of AOL, without even looking back. When the place is as ethereal as a website, our allegiance is much more abstract than it is to a local pub or gym. We don’t live there, we don’t know the owner, and we are all the more ready to be incensed by the latest change to a privacy policy, or to learn that every one of our social connections has been sold to the highest corporate bidder.

So it’s not that MySpace lost and Facebook won. It’s that MySpace won first, and Facebook won next. They’ll go down in the same order.

The longer the company can maintain the illusion of great profits without alienating its user base, the longer they can delay the inevitable decline. But given that Facebook has already begun cashing in its chips, that moment has quite likely arrived.

I don’t know if Facebook is already “cashing in its chips,” and it’s hard to imagine the site going down. Is that lack of imagination a matter of myopia, or a sign of Facebook’s mind-boggling psychic reach? Rushkoff’s argument – that we value good content, and real friendship, more than the forum in which we experience them – is a compelling one. But it might miss the apparently unprecedented structure of the forum itself, of a medium that we follow and that follows us everywhere, a medium that is helping rewrite the rules of the web in which it was born.

The breadth and depth of Facebook’s reach across the Internet, signified by that omnipresent “like” button – or the head-scratching statistic that half of a generation checks Facebook as soon as they wake up in the morning – hasn’t just made a large portion of the wired world more social online. It’s helping change the dynamics of human behavior, relationships, privacy, and idea sharing, in ways that might not have surprised but may have still shocked a Marshall McLuhan.

And as the recent valuation reminds us, Facebook is not changing the world under the banner of social good, or for the sake of its users. Step back and look at the site from the vantage of Madison Avenue: though Mark Zuckerberg originally struggled to keep ads to a minimum, the website exists today because it is the world’s most powerful advertising platform. It makes Madison Avenue look like an alleyway.

Whether or not Facebook’s influence is a good one is almost immaterial in the context of Facebook’s growth; as I’ve written before, the speed and scale of the Facebook medium makes it hard to think about how the site is changing us, let alone give us much of an opportunity to make any changes ourselves. However many parallels there are with its predecessors, Facebook is not simply a more advanced replay of America Online or Myspace. Its reach, and the way that it’s actively changing the web itself, makes it more like another paradigm.

That said, technology, like science, is a story of innovating into new paradigms, and in the hyper-speed digital era especially, the present moment offers us little indication of what’s to come. For some idea of how quickly and disruptive the Internet can be, consider the case of Groupon. A year ago, it was relatively unknown, a neat idea that let me get a half-priced coupon for cupcakes. Now it’s a company that Google thinks is worth $6 billion; Groupon, which politely declined Google’s offer, thinks it’s worth double.

Facebook’s huge, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t Groupon-like ideas out there, waiting in the wings for Facebook’s cue, only to leave and take the audience with it. Just think about how many college sophomore programmers saw “The Social Network.” If Mark Zuckerberg should be frustrated with the movie, perhaps his best reason is that it’s inspired a new generation of upstart punks with their own Facebooks.

Then again, we might hope that they aren’t Facebooks at all. Can we imagine a Facebook replacement that’s more open, more easily controlled by users, and maybe even ad-free? (It’s not out of the question at all: consider the transition from ad-supported network television to ad-free premium cable). A project like Diaspora, a potentially game-changing effort to remake social networking on our own terms, hints that “the next Facebook” may not look anything like Facebook. Whatever succeeds Facebook, the question should be, will it work harder for us, rather than require us to work so hard for it?

Or, as we fly through the Facebook era into the future, will we, to borrow the title of Rushkoff’s new book, “program or be programmed”? If it’s the latter, we’ll end up with more companies telling us what’s dead, not the other way around.