Call a priest. Facebook is going down.
Yes, I know FB continues to attract hundreds of thousands of new users by the month. And yes, I know they own the world's largest network of personal connections.
Robert Scoble thinks Facebook is fine. And I agree with at least two of his main points. First, I think it is highly likely that FB will--as it dies--make billions of dollars. Given the size and enthusiasm of their audience, how could Mark Zuckerberg swing a dead cat in there and not make billions?
Second, I think the hullabaloo about the new interface is overblown. Yes, I think the new interface sucks. But you know what? I thought the old interface sucked too.
I'm not even sure I could tell you what the difference between the new and old interface is, other than an upswing in onscreen shilling. I've taken a scientific poll of three people who are non-technical and regular FB users. All of them hate the new interface, but when I asked them what was better about the old one, I got blank stares.
There are a number of reasons to believe that FB is bound for a mind-blowingly profitable death. And the interface is a symptom, not a cause.
The reason it's impossible to figure out where to go and what to do with that interface is because FB is trying to be all things to all people. It's a photo gallery. It's a meeting place. It's an email system. It's a game arcade. It's a shopping mall and gift exchange.
Aside: If one more person gives me a "gift" of any kind on FB, I will flip out. It's not a gift. It's a picture of a gift. Or not even. And what you've actually done is steal a minute of my precious time, the time it took to log on and realize FB is crying wolf again.
And what is it with you and your gifts anyway? Do you not have enough to do?
But onward: Scoble seems to think that becoming all things to all people will represent the company's culminating "Phase 7": World domination.
I am of a more cynical mindset. I believe that when you're everything, you are actually nothing.
FB's impossible challenge--one they've unconsciously embraced--is to compete to be the best at everything. Yes, people love to post pictures at FB. But can FB compete with Flickr, a company focused only on providing that one service? Can FB compete with dedicated gaming companies? And while FB is busy trying to secure its far flung borders, it faces a threat to its core "status update" business from a tunnel-visioned competitor called Twitter.
You would think that FB as a one-stop shop would have an advantage, that the fragmenting of services on the Web would drive users to seek single-source, catchall options. But this may not be the case. Younger users in particular tend to use many different clients and sites. Far from looking to any one of them to "do it all," it is more important that each do one obvious thing very well. Everything else is noise.
We've seen this movie before--about a company that tried to be anything and everything to all users. It was called AOL, and its history is instructive. At a certain point, the temptation to wring every possible cent out of its business became irresistible. Even at the cost of cannibalizing itself. AOL's trillions live on (somewhere I guess). But what happened to AOL?
That's where FB is now. Yes, FB can hardly fail to make money, but it will be a process of feasting on its own flesh.
FB's central paradox is that it is conceived as a network for personal friendships. And despite the wishful thinking of social marketers, friends who are always trying to sell something don't make the best friends.
Scoble doesn't quite seem to get this. Considering what Twitter has not done in response to his impending parenthood, he says:
...not a single diaper company contacted us yet. Not a single maternity clothing company. Not a single car company (yes, we're going to buy a new one soon). Not a single camera company (already bought a new one for this occasion). Not a single insurance company (I need more). Not a single bank (I need to start saving for another college student). Not a single stroller company (need a new one that can hold two). Not a single vitamin company (Maryam is going through her prenatal vitamins at a good clip). Not a single shoe company (Maryam needs new shoes for pregnancy, and Milan is growing fast too)
I agree that Scoble will need and buy all those things. And maybe he wants salespeople to be working the room at FB. But I sure as hell don't. When I'm ready to buy, I will reach out to do so. But when I am not consciously determined to buy, every sales message is an invasion. We don't invite insurance salesmen to ply their trade at our dinner parties. And we don't choose to watch commercials.
It doesn't have to be this way. FB could look to externalize the shopping experience in a way that leaves a "safe zone" for personal interaction without pitches. Or they could be content to shave pennies here and there off an astronomical number of interactions. Google has proven masters at this, relying on scale to build an empire, while adwords and sponsored links remain barely noticeable on the page. FB could go a similar route.
Fat chance. The lure of quick riches is irresistable. In fact, to fail get the money while the getting is good would be irresponsible.
Another challenge that confronts FB as the be-all and end-all of social destinations is that people like variety in their social lives. We like to go to different bars, to different restaurants, to hang out with different sets of friends, just to keep things fresh. FB is on top of the heap right now, and in the world of social apps, that's the same thing as going stale.
So the death watch has begun. In the next year or so we will see a shift of perception. FB will lose its cache as the single place for social interaction with friends. FB members will begin to slip off into new communities where they can socialize without interruption. AOL's fall was stunning and precipitous (granted: there was an ISP dimension, absent here). People realized they had other options. And people have far more options now than they had then.
Mark Lazen is the CTO of Social Media Today. He is temporarily stationed in Mexico where he is conducting swine flu experiments on his children.