Facebook’s Fatal Flaw

Given the fact that Facebook just filed for a public offering of its shares which will value the company at $100 billion and make thousands of its current investors wealthy beyond imagination, you might be forgiven for thinking that Facebook is a wild success. That, and the fact that some 800 million people currently use Facebook, or more than 10 percent of the total world population.

But despite all that, I think that Facebook is failing.

Do I think that Facebook is going to go bankrupt tomorrow? Far from it. I’m sure that it will continue to print money for years to come, based on sheer momentum alone. (Hey, AOL still exists.) But if you listen to the way that people talk about Facebook you sense – or at least I do – that its cultural moment has passed. This is just based on a very unscientific analysis of my own very small circle of acquaintances, but once upon a time, Facebook was this awesome cool thing that you just had to try. Lately, all everyone seems to say about Facebook is “I don’t get it” or “I find it annoying but I feel like I have to go on once in a while.” Facebook, in other words, is heading the way of MySpace.

Becoming MySpace, of course, is the specter that haunts the nightmares of every Facebook investor. The company has been super aggressive in trying to avoid that fate by trying to metastasize into something grander than an automated blogging site, sending out tentacle everywhere in order to become a ubiquitous presence that binds together every aspect of the internet experience. They have striven for immortality through intrusiveness. And this, I think, will be their undoing.

At its heart, Facebook is about gossip. In the movie The Social Network, the promethean spark of Facebook’s creation comes when a fellow student asks Mark Zuckerberg to find out whether a certain female student is attached or not. That’s it, Zuckenberg realizes: what people really want is the inside scoop on their peers. Who’s available for a potential hook-up? Who has committed a gaffe, or proven themselves untrustworthy? Who requires solace?

The desire for this kind of information is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. As E.O. Wilson argues in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, it is our talent for maintaining tightly knit, altruistic groups that allowed human beings to outcompete all the other hominins that once shared the earth with us. Gossip is an important tool in that process. It allows us to negotiate the complicated and treacherous shoals of social subtext. Keeping abreast of our contemporaries and maneuvering for advantage without being seen to do so requires an intricate dance. Though we may scorn it in public, most of us secretly crave it, and one recent study suggests that it may actually be good for us. In a paper published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, UC Berkeley researchers found that when subjects witnessed a person engaged in dishonest behavior, their stress levels shot up—but they calmed down considerably when they were able to pass the information along to others who were at risk of falling victim.

Facebook, then, should be a focus of our online experience: it should be the irreplaceable source of the up-to-date social information that we so instinctively crave. Imagine some long-ago villager who knew exactly what everyone was up to, and could give you the low down, without boring you with useless facts about people you didn’t care about. This is the person you’d want to spend time with. This would be the person with savvy.

Once upon a time, Facebook felt like this. But the longer I use it, the less savvy it seems. Most of the information that crawls down my home page is about people I don’t even know. The information they’re conveying is stuff I wouldn’t care about, even if I did know them. Someone read an article; someone joined a group; someone commented on her own photo. The signal to noise ratio is too low. Facebook has gone from being the village yenta to the village idiot

In another moment from The Social Network (hey this is a blog post, how in-depth do you expect my research to be?) Zuckerberg mind-melds with Sean Parker after the veteran tech investor groks what Zuckergerg’s own colleagues don’t: that the most important thing for Facebook is that it be perceived as cool. Selling ads, figuring out revenue streams—everything else is secondary. Facebook must be cool. The minute it loses the respect of the public, it will face a severe downward slide. Who wants to share gossip with a loser? Once you lose the cred, there’s no getting it back, no matter how much you spend. Just ask MySpace.

If Facebook hadn’t overreached by trying to turn every damn thing we do into a social moment—a rather pale substitute for juicy gossip—it wouldn’t have turned into such a crushing bore.

In order for its grandiose ambition of universality to succeed, Facebook would need to be able to do something that every successful yenta can: arbitrage information. It would have to be able to filter out the interesting information from the boring, to know who wants to know what, and who wants what to be known by whom. Can computers carry out such a task? It’s way beyond the ability of current artificial intelligence. But like everything else that computers can’t yet do, it’s only a matter of time.

Someday, there will be a social network that dominates not just because of a Romneyesque sense of inevitability, but because it actually feels compelling and irreplaceable. Maybe that network will be called Facebook. But I’d wager that, given the life cycle of such things, by the time this era dawns, Facebook will lie buried under six feet of digital dust in some forgotten corner of the internet.

UPDATE: The ever-interesting Alexis Madrigal has a piece up on the Atlantic that points to an even more rapid erosion of Facebook’s cool quotient. In short, he posits that in order to justify its $100 billion valuation, Facebook is going to have to get more aggressive about extracting value from its users.

…when Facebook was merely trying to grow its user base, the incentives between Facebook and you, as a user, were pretty tightly coupled. Now, particularly in the United States, user growth is slowing and getting more money for each user is necessary. My guess is that Facebook’s need to monetize at higher levels and users’ desires will come into conflict more often the higher its revenue per user climbs.

18 thoughts on “Facebook’s Fatal Flaw”

  1. i think your prediction will prove very true. many aspects of facebook are no longer cool and make users downright mad and they always express the lament that facebook doesn’t care! not cool:)

  2. I agree that the signal-to-noise ratio on facebook has fallen (gradually) over the years. All the external apps such as Spotify, Foursquare, etc. are adding this layer of commercially valuable data about consumption but also basically making the facebook home page a garbage dump.

    Here’s the question: when does facebook become useless enough to stop visiting the site? I don’t doubt that facebook has some of the brightest & craftiest people working on how to solve the problem of generating more revenue per user. But solving the revenue problem could exacerbate the noise/signal problem that eventually causes user attrition.

  3. As a blogger, I’ve noticed the increases in traffic from Facebook, largely due to the fact that my “extended friends” has reached a lot of people who ONLY use Facebook.

    Should their Open Graph strategy prove to capture interest and intent through events and actions, it may be transformed to a user experience interesting enough to an audience of Facebook friends with common interests.

    Brilliant article. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Spot on! FB used to be fun, I get more aggravated than anything with it these days. Another tweak here, another look there, and the incessant security check I need to make because something changed and I’m getting tagged in places I should be.

    Two years a demented person started spreading insane stories on me outside my cycle, even though she was a “Friend”. This could have easily wrecked the reputation of my practice.

    Let’s face it, FB is no longer cool. There’s not that much of interest there and I use to let people what I’ve just written. Google + is slightly better. At least, there, I can follow intelligent streams of conversations.

  5. I think the article makes some valid points that I agree with, especially in terms of signal to noise. However I know some people have figured out how to keep their circles tighter and use FB more personally. These automatic updates are really killing it though. For example the Yahoo news intrusion of adding a “Kris just read this article on blah…” to my timeline is true crap. If facebook goes down the crapification road it won’t be long before people tune out in favor of old fashioned email or other, more personal and controllable mechanisms.

  6. Just spoke to my spouse who uses FB more than I do. She agreed that her interest in following FB has decreased over the last few years. For me, it never interested me upto an extent that if it fails I will miss it.

    There are few good things about facebook. It found & connected those people to me who I almost lost contact with. But that’s what MySpace, Reunion, linkedin, etc do or did.

    I find it annoying to read unrelated nonsensical stories. And I also find it annoying that FB suggests idiots or those who I never wanted to meet again as friends. It does the same to others too, I believe.

    For me, it is losing sheen.

  7. Facebook is what you make it, the whole user experience depends upon the user taking the effort to make it fun for themself. I signed up in 2009 and didn’t really find any use for it until 2010 and especially after I got a smartphone and it was easy to acess at a glance. Twitter is another big example of something that you have to tailor to yourself or it is completely uninteresting. I love Twitter now, but after signing up I didn’t use it for nearly a year until I decided I’d find a purpose or swear it off. I got on Twitter, read a FAQ, built my own personal ticker of stuff and people I find interesting which turns out to make Twitter a great news and entertainment site. I use my own timeline as a spot to put out quotes, rants and generally use it as a soapbox for my interests and frustrations; check out @RossWalline to see what I mean.

  8. I don’t know whether Facebook is worth 100 billion, but it certainly has a lot of stickiness, a lot more than Myspace or others that came before. It is DEFINITELY not failing. Yes, sometimes there is a lot of useless information about 3rd parties I don’t know and don’t find very interesting. But that is not enough reason to call it failing.

  9. Hoping facebook will one day die. It’s become too much a part of everyone’s lives these days, all I ever hear is ‘facebook this’, ‘facebook that’… What happened to good old phone calls and text messages between people? I hate what they’ve done with the timeline. The only thing I find it handy for is photos and chat.

  10. Great piece. I’ve been “off” FB for over a month now. I felt there was something unnatural about it and actually depressing.

    Wow was I right. If you haven’t tried to get away from FB, and back to a normal state I highly recommend you try it.

    Go for a walk in the woods, read or breathe instead!

  11. I strongly disagree. The initial wave of enthusiasm is levelling off, yes, we all found our long lost high school buddies and exchanged our “how ya been”s. And Now the full potential of facebook can be fully worked. It is a place to exchange ideas, to launch and maintain marketing campaigns, to get real time news, often from people at ground zero, hours before the news media. I never would have even heard of you if it werent for my Coast to Coast link on facebook. You are way off base on this one. BTW, you were an excellent guest on C2C last nite. Good luck with your book and I hope you see how you can utilize facebook to market your book and this site. Cheers!

  12. You’re right. My experience with my group of friends echoes your own. It’s both less relevant and more annoying with each passing day. I already have every single one of my 150 friends on “Important Only” (whatever that means)

    I only hang on to it for its placeholder function in my life. I don’t wish to totally lose touch with old friends but nor do I wish to know they’re having lunch.

  13. I got completely turned off to FB when I posted a comment on the website of my local news channel in relation to a story they ran and about a week or two later when I logged into my FB the comment was posted on my wall for everyone to read – I do not like that at all!! It seems like there are a lot of sites that won’t even allow you to post unless you sign-in with your FB info. Since that incident I have deleted all my pics (even though it still shows I have 36 photos, WHY!:-(), I post nothing and the only thing that prompts me to go on is if I receive an email notification from a friend I actually want to speak to.
    I have to agree the your blog – I don’t think FB will go away,their tentacles are in everything and their international base is growing, but the domestic users are getting tired, bored and moving on. Too many privacy issues.

    The Happily Mixed Up Community is a new cool site. They even offer their premium members profit sharing. Do any of the current sites offer their users anything like that? NO!


    Not just another social network, they are a community that cares about their members.

  14. An old post, I know, but I’m feeling the same about Twitter now, three years on from your writing this.

    I’m also feeling that our need for connection fuels all this and then we realise the paucity of it as it gets hijacked by corporate guff… Who wants to ‘follow’ a food item? Weirdly, people do want to. And that is possibly something that requires really urgent research and assessment. 😉 And then said folk need to have a word with themselves. lol

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