November 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?

11 responses to “The Facebook Fad”

  1. alex says:

    Excellent post. You are entirely correct – the people I want to network with I am already doing so and the people I don't want to network with can now find me.

  2. Edward says:

    I completely agree with your post.

    However, I think you have answered your own question. As much as it is advertised, this is not an application/social service for busy entrepreneurs like yourself. Unlike AOL, it is not an application for everybody.

    What Facebook does best is allow for unique and creative interaction between users. These interactions aren’t necessarily productive but rather of a more casual, social nature. If you look at the most popular apps, Graffiti, Superpoke,, iLike, Where I’ve Been, they all emphasize a fun, non-constructive interaction of a social nature.

    Facebook is successful in this aspect alone. People with lots and lots of free time for casual interactions (Highschool and College users) have about 20 different ways to interact with the same group of people. And when all these interactions can be seen/viewed by affiliates in their social networks, it builds on itself. It is self propagating because it increases their social utility. I forget where I read it, but it increases ‘social capital’ for these kids.

    I may be generalizing, but someone like yourself derives much less utility from such a service. You don’t need to know which one of your friends flirted with whom, who wrote on whose wall, etc. You’re a busy guy with a wife, you have books to read, places to see. You don’t curl up in bed watching an episode of The Hills, listening to Soulja Boy, talking to your bestfriend about your latest crush on your iPhone and stalk facebook for the latest school yard gossip.

    You are right that Facebook is over hyped. However, it is perfect for what it is: a social tool for the Gen X crowd. Its ultimate success will depend on how much value it can extract from that captive Gen X audience. Everything else, all the hype, the promises, its just noise.

    my 2 cents

  3. All good points…but my main point is that it's not going to take over the world since it feels to me like it's pretty niche.

  4. Ezra Fischer says:

    So, I'm a hysterically late adopter for my age and I just got a Facebook account a couple of weeks ago. One advantage that I see over the open web is that it aggregates a lot of different forms of interaction under one roof. I can play chess with some friends, "scrabulous" (how is scrabble not suing them??) with others, flirt with still more, and 'catch up after a long time' with still others without having to find them all for each function. And it's easy to then cross — feel like beating that old high-school friend that you're now flirting with at Cribbage? Boom — it's done.

    I think you're right about Facebook not lasting though — it's just a night-club, and if there's one thing we know about hot spots for young people from living in New York, it's that once it's not cool anymore, it's done. There will always be another cooler place to go.

  5. Tony says:

    Facebook is over-hyped because it's a fad. And to be a fad, you need to have a cult following. It also has to be temporary.

    There will be other ways for people to communicate in the future – other sites people will use to socialize.

  6. Keni says:

    Agreed. Facebook will fade out soon. All the things on there are so juvenile and they get old pretty quick even for the juveniles themselves.

  7. IGnatius T Foobar says:

    I hope the Facebook fad finishes running its course soon. I'm sick and tired of hearing about it. I've already been through high school once — I didn't like it, and I don't want to do it again, and that's one reason I refuse to get on Facebook.

  8. Andrew Straw says:

    well, it is funny to listen to people talk like that. Facebook has over 300 million users. It is integrating people in a Kevin Bacon sort of way, but on steroids. How many people out of that 300 million are over the age of 25? I suspect a high percentage. I for one am friends with all of my political representatives back home in the States, as well as about 10 MPs here in NZ, where I live. They write back. The social capital is not just for kids.

    It is not a fad. I actually find as much utility from that webpage as I do from Google–perhaps more! Google unfortunately does not help people who search for the same thing talk to one another. You are in a silent library when you go to Google, and there aren't even any rooms attached to have conversations there. Google has a lot of room to innovate in this area.

    Is Google a fad? The name would surely suggest it. Facts indicate otherwise.

    Same with FB.

  9. To be fair, that post is two years old, and the comments written atthe time agree with it. 🙂

    Clearly I was wrong about Facebook's popularity, but it still has some of the underlying issues or potential issues I noted at the time.

    But certainly happy to concede the main point!

  10. Geekboy says:

    One big problem with facebook or any social networking sites..great big security hole for your entire life.

  11. TheTruth™ says:

    Facebook is a fad it will come up and down. The only reason so many members are joining is from all the media hype after investors dumped nearly a billion dollars into the site. It didnt just take off out of no where like everyone here thinks peter theil aka paypal co founder invested half a million in it then it just snowballed from new investor to new investor from there is to much hype Andrew Straw im glad you found some use in the site…. well at least for now. My 5 year old sister found use in AIM Aol back in the day too. So