Most of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. We love spying on long-lost loves, communicating with high school friends and viewing/sharing photos of life milestones. But most of us cringe at political rants, toddler potty training updates and personal play-by-plays (“Just ate a turkey sandwich…delish!”).
In fact, Cliff Lampe, assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, says those who abandon Facebook are doing so as the result of a single, uncomfortable event like a difficult interaction with an ex. A smaller segment of the population is discontinuing membership as a result of privacy concerns.
Although this pattern is currently more of a trickle than an exodus, will this along with a devalued post-IPO Facebook and the threat of new technology and customized social networks be enough to undo the social media monolith?
Dissecting the Facebook Addiction
According to Internet World Stats, nearly 14 percent of the world’s population uses Facebook—955 million people worldwide, 552 million daily—putting the site on a par with many major world religions. With numbers this high, the site is creating its own gravitational pull, culling more users by the millions, according to Andrew Lipsman, vice president and industry analyst for comScore.
Whether gravitational pull or simple procrastination enhancer, Facebook's allure—and even addictiveness—is undeniable. It is an ingrained habit of online daily usage for millions. But this addiction is causing some to seek rehab, reaching the saturation point.
“I’ve put myself on a social media diet,” says Charlene Li, founding partner of Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.–based research and advisory firm that studies disruptive business models. “I allow myself only 15 minutes a day.”
Li’s 15 minutes is spent across all of her social media networks. She queues future Twitter updates, checks Facebook statuses of her key connections and blogs infrequently. She recommends small-business owners do the same or fall into a social media time-trap.
Facebook Puts on a Tie
One aspect that has bolstered Facebook's bottom line while perhaps simultaneously decreasing its cool cache is its adoption by companies as a marketing tool. Many see it as a sure path to sales and customer loyalty. But as Dr. Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at England’s University of Oxford, argues, most entrepreneurs aren't using Facebook the right way.
“There used to be this belief in the Internet ‘Field of Dreams’ where business owners thought if they spent money on heavy Facebook applications and long posts, their consumers would come,” he says. “That is changing.”
Instead, business owners need to go to where their audience is already communicating. The information ecosystem is cluttered, he says, recommending entrepreneurs “gently dip into the stream” of what their targeted audience is already talking about, being “responsive rather than aggressive.” For example, Lipsman says the true growth in Facebook usage is on mobile devices, citing that in July people spent an average of 439 minutes on Facebook on a PC compared with 500 minutes on a mobile device.
Rise of the Visual Web
Realizing the potential threat more visual social networks could pose, Facebook was on to something when it purchased photo-sharing site Instagram for a whopping $1 billion earlier this year. The acquisition shed a bright light on the exploding popularity of the visual Web—photos as a substitute for status updates. Facebook itself looks to be adopting the trend with its migration to the Timeline format.
According to Instagram, the site has 80 million users. Pinterest, another photo-heavy service used to share visual ideas with friends, boasted 10 million monthly users in February, according to comScore. But those who think photo-sharing sites will eventually surpass Facebook in usage rates are mistaken, says Marc A. Smith, chief social scientist at Connection Action Consulting Group in Silicon Valley.
“Pinterest adopters are a different crowd than Facebook adopters,” he explains.
That may be true, but Li wonders how the preferences of very young Internet users will change the landscape. She is mother to a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old, neither of which are on Facebook.
“Their friends aren’t on it, either; they just aren’t interested,” she says. “They are much more interested in things like Instagram and Pinterest. The photo formats make it easier for them to express themselves. It will be interesting to see how their preferences change, and if they change, in the future.”
The Threat of Vertical Networks
Social networking as a business model is still in its infancy, though the exclusivity of newer vertical social networks popping up every day offer a compelling alternative for many. There are networks for shopping lovers, sports enthusiasts and academic institutions. Such groups allow users to talk to only a targeted group of people, something University of Michigan's Lampe says prevents "context collapse.”
“When you have such diverse networks all in the same space, it can cause social awkwardness,” he adds.
While usage rates on vertical social networks don’t come close to rivaling that of Facebook, engagement is high. Li is a member of such a network, NextDoor, which links members of her neighborhood. She likes the concept of the site and uses it frequently. She notes, however, that "After I get to know someone on NextDoor, I go friend them on Facebook. It’s the mothership.”
ComScore's Lipsman agrees, saying he thinks the impact of these networks on Facebook will be minimal.
“There is a fallacy of thinking it is a zero sum game—where, just because someone uses something else, it is a bad thing for Facebook,” he says.
The MySpace Effect
Some businesspeople have simply burned out on Facebook, either because of the time and effort involved or the tone of the site. Kimberly Anderson, founder of Kikilu Productions, a startup lifestyle programming business in Cincinnati, says she struggles to find time to dedicate to her company’s Facebook page and feels discouraged by what she labels “bad etiquette and bravado” exhibited on her personal news feed.
“Facebook has gone from this great way to communicate with family to a money-making machine with a lot of advertising and a disregard for the private user,” she says. “I think it will go the way of MySpace; something bigger and better will come along and everyone will jump ship.”
Oxford's Hogan disagrees. He says he can’t imagine a game-changing technology that will supplant Facebook entering the market anytime soon. He notes that the two major differentiators between MySpace and Facebook is the latter's superior user interface and the introduction of the "real-name Web," no longer going under pseudonyms such as chattygirl27 or soccerlover90. (By the way, MySpace is staging a comeback with a focus on music and online games.) The demise of Facebook, says Hogan, could only come at the hands of a major company implosion or a massive monetization campaign that strongly turns off users. Not to mention the pain of migration that keeps people loyal to Facebook.
“Switching from one site to another is a vastly slow process,” he says. “At this point, you are looking at not just 900 million people who would need to migrate, but the 200 billion connections between those people.”
But Anderson stands strong in her prediction. Everything changes and runs its course, she says, adding that she hopes to someday see a platform that doesn't integrate business and pleasure as much as Facebook does.
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