Thursday, July 23, 2009

Will Facebook Still be Around in Five Years?

Newsweek's Kurt Soller guaranteed some page views with his provocative question: "Will Facebook still be around in five years?" He launches his essay with the oft-quoted claim that a country of Facebook users, now topping 250 million users, "would now be the fourth most populous in the world." Soon afterward, Soller explains how the same impulses that contributed to the site's explosive growth could ultimately lead to its collapse. There's an attention-grabber!

Seriously though, could Facebook implode? Could it really join Friendster and MySpace as a casualty of the social networking wars? It could, Soller replies. According to his article, one potential cause of Facebook's demise may lie in something called context collapse, when our heretofore distinct networks (party friends, work colleagues, family members) blur amid the same online frame, when anyone can access parts of ourselves that were once dependably distinct. One example is when a professor witnesses party activity of a student-Facebook pal that neither would envision seeing in the classroom [some images I still can't get out of my head, believe me]. The awkward possibilities of context collapse lead many folks to abandon Facebook after a while. It's just too easy to get confused and overwhelmed, even with the many privacy settings available today.

Even worse for the company, Facebook hasn't managed to make real money just yet. The company is worth billions of dollars potentially, but actual revenues have not yet caught up with costs. Sure, the ads that appear on our pages are eye-catching without being too obnoxious, but I can't think of a single time in which I made a purchase as a result of seeing a product on Facebook. Even those cute Snorg t-shirt ads evoke no more than an occasional smile. Brand awareness, yes. Results? Not from me. To survive, Facebook needs to generate serious cashflow. How can it accomplish that goal?

The most promising means to Facebook profitability and long-term growth involves next-generation tools that will allow us to glean meaningful information from our network of friends. Soller states that it's one thing to learn what a FB friend wants to share; it's another to employ our networks to learn what we want to know. And considering the collective wisdom in the typical Facebook network -- offering answers from (presumably) trusted friends to questions that range from Where can I get a decent local meal? to What is necessary part of my itinerary when visiting Paris? to How should I invest my retirement funds? -- there's a vault of valuable information waiting to mine from all those notes and updates and pictures, information that may only be constructed through complex algorithms and content analysis, not simply by posting a question.

It may sound overly utilitarian, and maybe even kind of creepy in the way that social networking contributes to our contemporary surveillance society, but we all could benefit from Facebook data mining. Indeed, "[i]f they can figure out a way to monetize our interactions without violating our trust," [University of North Carolina researcher Fred] Stutzman says, "then maybe they've got a chance of being the next Microsoft or Google" [This seems like a dichotomy rather than a pair of related futures, but never mind]. Stutzman's projection could be cool from both a personal "quality of life" perspective and a corporate balance sheet point of view.

That said, Facebook stopped being cool to me years ago. Now it's something more bland: it's simply indispensable. Adding much to "thicken" my in-person friendships [here's a story to illustrate], Facebook has also bolstered my daily life with more loose-but-meaningful connections than I ever had before. Those relationships offer many of the essential traits of friendship we come to expect in "real life": shared community, mutual affirmation, historical narrative, and - yes, I'll be a bit instrumental here - useful information and advice. For all its silly quizzes and obnoxious "targeted advertising" (Over 40? Like Peter Gabriel? You'll love this guy!), Facebook has become my primary interface to hundreds of consequential relationships. It literally has improved my life.

Even five years from now, I can't imagine being without Facebook. Can you?

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