Nov 25 2007

The Facebook Fad

The Facebook Fad

I’m sure someone will shoot me for saying this, but I don’t get Facebook.  I mean, I get it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  I made similar comments before about Gmail (here, here), and people told me I was an idiot at the time.  Three years later, Gmail is certainly a popular webmail service, but it’s hardly changed the world. In fact, it’s a distant fourth behind Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL.  So I don’t feel so bad about not oohing and ahhing and slobbering all over the place about Facebook.

Facebook reminds me of AOL back in the day.  AOL was the most simple, elegant, general purpose entree for people who wanted to get online and weren’t sure how in the early days of online services, before the Internet came of age.  It was good at packaging up its content and putting everything “in a box.”  It was clean.  It was fun.  People bragged about being an AOL member and talked about their screen name like it was on their birth certificate or something.  And the company capitalized on all the goodwill by becoming a PR machine to perpetuate its membership growth.

Now Facebook — it’s the most simple, elegant, general purpose social networking site here in the early days of social networking.  It’s pretty good about packaging up its applications, and certainly opening up its APIs is a huge benefit that AOL didn’t figure out until it embraced the open web in 1999-2000.  It is pretty good about putting everything in a box for me as a member.  And like AOL, the company is turning into a PR juggernaut and hoping to use it to perpetuate its registration numbers.

But let’s look at the things that caused (IMO) AOL’s downfall (AOL as we knew it) and look at the parallels with Facebook.  AOL quickly became too cluttered.  It’s simple elegance was destroyed by too much stuff jammed into its clean interface.  It couldn’t keep up with best of breed content or even messaging systems inside its walled garden.  Spam crushed its email functionality.  It couldn’t maintain its “all things to all people” infrastructure on the back end.  Ultimately, the open web washed over it.  People who defected were simply having better experiences elsewhere.

The parallels aren’t exact, but there are certainly some strong ones.  Facebook is already too cluttered for me.  Why are people writing on my wall instead of emailing me — all that does is trigger an email from Facebook to me telling me to come generate another page view for them.  Why am I getting invitations to things on Facebook instead of through the much better eVite platform?  The various forms of messaging are disorganized and hard to find. 

Most important, for a social network, it turns out that I don’t actually want my entire universe of friends and contacts to be able to connect with each other through me.  Like George Costanza in Seinfeld, I apparently have a problem with my “worlds colliding.”  I already know of one couple who either hooked up or is heavily flirting by connecting through my Facebook profile, and it’s not one I’m proud to have spawned.  I think I let one of them “be my friend” by mistake in the first place.  And I am a compulsive social networker.  It’s hard to imagine that these principles scale unfettered to the whole universe.

The main thing Facebook has going for it in this comparison is that its open APIs will lead to best of breed development for the platform.  But who cares about Facebook as a platform?  Isn’t the open web (or Open Social) ultimately going to wash over it?  I get that there are cool apps being written for Facebook – but 100% of those applications will be on the open web as well.  It’s certainly possible that Facebook’s marrying of my “social network” with best of breed applications will make it stickier for longer than AOL…but let’s remember that AOL has clung to life as a proprietary service for quite a while on the stickiness of people’s email addresses.  And yet, it is a non-event now as a platform. 

It will be interesting to see how Facebook bobs and weaves over the coming years to avoid what I think of as its inevitable fate.  And yes, I know I’m not 18 and if I were, I’d like Facebook more and spend all day in it.  But that to me reinforces my point even more — this is the same crew who flocked to, and then quickly from, MySpace.  When will they get tired of Facebook, and what’s to prevent them moving onto the next fad?