Facebook Is The New AOL

And Equally Doomed

Those CDs made handy compacts for the ladies.

Back in April, I wrote a little screed declaiming Facebook’s failures around privacy and why they had ultimately led me to delete my account. At the time, my blog was read mostly by friends and co-workers. I just wanted to convince as many of them as possible to follow suit, so that I wouldn’t miss out on any good parties. As it happened, one of them posted it to Hacker News, and, within a few days, it had been reposted on Gizmodo (where, ironically, it now has nearly 40,000 “likes”), and became one of the top stories on Digg and Reddit. The post was translated into several languages and, at one point, I was even interviewed for the French version of 60 Minutes. It’s safe to say that my little rant has now been read by well over a million people, and, based on the comments and tweets I received, I think a substantial number actually did delete their accounts. (More irony: I think most of my original target audience – my friends and co-workers – remain on Facebook. Which means I’m probably still missing the good parties.)

I certainly wasn’t the only one writing about this. Many other bloggers and journalists had been on top of this story for months already. (In fact, it was their coverage that made my blog post possible – check out the links in the post.) Shortly afterwards, the story broke into the mainstream media, with Time magazine featuring it as their cover story. Facebook felt compelled to hold a conference call explaining themselves and rolled out simplified privacy controls. This, in turn, suggests that the general frustration with Facebook’s attitude towards privacy had, indeed, begun to hit them where it counts – people had been leaving the site in droves. Although they were still growing, there was evidence that their growth had dropped off dramatically. More significantly, and very suddenly, all the cool kids were over Facebook. For a social media start-up, even one with nearly over a half-billion users, that is the death knell. Facebook knows this better than anyone, having come into vogue at the expense of MySpace, who, at the time, appeared equally invincible. (Remember when 100 million members seemed like a lot?)

But What’s The Alternative?

How much do people hate Facebook? They were willing to pay perfect strangers cash money to replace it.

The difference this time around is that no one seems certain what the “new Facebook” is supposed to be. This was one of the biggest questions people asked me after reading my post. “Sure, Facebook sucks. I get it. But what else can we use?” Facebook’s critics, including myself, were left scrambling for answers. An open-source project that had yet to release any code raised over $200,000 in a few days on Kickstarter. Others suggested up-and-comers like pip.io and Hibe. My own answer was that the Web itself is already a social network. There’s not much need, really, to have one place to store everything. In fact, it can be problematic, as Facebook has amply demonstrated. There are better solutions for sharing status updates, links, photos, videos, and much, much more. That said, I can understand the appeal of having a single, simplified interface to access things. Numerous startups (and not-so-startups) have tried providing such an interface to the “social Web,” but, at this point, it’s fair to say, none of them have really caught on yet. So while I can (and do) use Twitter for status updates, Flickr for photo sharing, YouTube for videos, and so on, I still had to learn to use all these separate services. That was fine for the early adopter crowd, and it’s fine for me, but none of these services have crossed over quite like Facebook.

In other words, the social Web exists, but it’s kind of a pain to use.

People Search: It Can’t Be That Hard

When you search for me, this guy comes up. Not really, but he might as well.

But there’s more. One of the most common responses I got from people to my anti-Facebook rant was that Facebook made it easy to keep in touch with people. Even I will admit that I did end up reconnecting with a few old friends, which was nice. (Of course, for every one of them, there were a dozen friend-requests from people I barely remembered, but, hey, nothing’s perfect.) People gave me the same answer several years ago when I’d ask them what they saw in MySpace. “People can find me,” was the most common answer. And it’s true. If I search for a person on Google or any other search engine, I usually get an indecipherable tangle of results, unless they happen to have a really uncommon name, are really well-known, or really good at SEO. Even then, it still takes work to piece together anything that looks like a profile. The search engines have left a giant hole in the search engine space, and, to this day, they don’t seem to even be aware of the problem. What Facebook provides is “people search” that works.

The Never Ending Quest To Be The Start Page For The Web

And Netscape ... well, we won't even talk about Netscape.

Facebook has combined these two basic capabilities – a cohesive social media consumer experience and what amounts to a very effective on-line directory – and has essentially recreated AOL, except it’s 2010, and instead of CDs and DVDs, they have Facebook Connect and Like buttons. Like AOL, Facebook is clearly attempting create what amounts to a proprietary version of the Web. Their recent introduction of Facebook Places is a great example of this. Who needs FourSquare or Whrrl when you have Places? Rumor has it they are also planning to introduce their own version of Yahoo Answers. And they will continue to do this until you really have no need to ever actually leave Facebook. Of course, Web content will still exist outside of Facebook, but Facebook’s ultimate goal here is to get to the point where you get to it through their applications. (And I’d bet a lot of organizations already update their Facebook Group pages at least as much as they update their Web sites. I recently heard a Toyota ad that directed you to their Facebook page.) After all, Google became the de facto standard “start page” with search and now they basically print money. But Google has been almost comically unable to extend their lucrative beachhead into the realm of social media. I’m sure Skynet is by now somewhat alarmed by Facebook’s success at this point, given how chummy Facebook and Microsoft have been. How difficult would it be for Facebook to integrate the Bing search engine directly into the Facebook consumer experience? Not very.

The thing is, these attempts to “take over” the Web always fail. Even before the Web became the defacto way to share content, we had CompuServe and AOL. Both tried to ignore the Web. AOL embraced it in time to make a run at being the de facto start page. Microsoft tried for awhile to introduce a proprietary version of the Web (remember Blackbird?), so everyone would need Windows to use it. Then we had Yahoo, adding virtually every on-line service known to humanity in a similar quest. Next, of course, came Google, who succeeded with search, but failed with almost everything else. More recently, we had MySpace and now Facebook.

Guys, this never works.

You Can’t Out-Hustle An Entire, Highly Caffeinated Industry

Because a quadruple-expresso takes too long to make.

Yet companies can’t seem to resist trying. Eventually, they either fade into the background, old before their time (see MySpace, Yahoo), or they simply outgrow that phase (see Microsoft) and realize the Web is bigger than any one company and big enough for all of them.

The reason these attempts fail is simple. Collectively, innovation on the Web, given time, always outpaces that of any single company. It is the tortoise and hare fable, except with billions of dollars and massive data centers. Right now, as you read, thousands of entrepreneurs, many of them very talented, are eyeing those 500M Facebook members, not to mention a half-dozen billion-dollar companies who can, and are, throwing hundred and even thousands of engineers into social. And they will eventually come up with a consumer experience that is simply more compelling than any one-stop-shop approach.

And I think that is real lesson in the success of my little Facebook post. Facebook has already lost literally millions of us around the world. Millions more would leave except that, at the moment, Facebook provides features they can’t get anywhere else. As soon as there are decent alternatives, they will leave. Facebook, like MySpace and AOL and many others, will surely hang around for years after that point, but they’ll be irrelevant.

Moving On …

Of course, sometimes people do things they later regret.

Of course, perhaps they will change their stripes. A lot of talented people have joined their ranks over the past year or so, and I’m sure they didn’t do so with irrelevancy in mind. Otherwise, they would have joined Yahoo or MySpace. Facebook has made some noises about making account deletion more straightforward and they did simplify their privacy settings. But then they rolled out Places, which apparently defaults to opt-in again, an almost shockingly bad idea. So, for now, I’m going to say Facebook is ultimately doomed by their own hubris.

And that is the last thing I’m going to say about Facebook. I had never intended to be the anti-Facebook guy. I don’t like them, sure, and I am concerned about privacy in social media, but that hardly defines me. Going forward, I plan to talk more about how we can make the Web itself work better for consumers. After all, that’s actually my job.