The Null Device

Why Facebook is doomed

Writing in InformationWeek, Cory Doctorow delivers a scathing indictment of Facebook, and its eyeball-herding business model:
Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"
If there was any doubt about Facebook's lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you're the kind of person who likes the sound of a benevolent dictatorship this clearly isn't one.
To be honest, Facebook doesn't seem quite as bad about this as other (such as MySpace, which has the chutzpah to make logging-in users click through interstitial ads, knowing that cool-obsessed teenagers will endure any amount of intrusive advertising as long as it's bright and flashy and ugly-nu-rave enough). Though all this could change if it does start using your name and picture to endorse some product which you once bought. (Though if it does this, it could be on shaky legal ground. It's quite likely that its retroactively amended click-through agreement would, following the great click-wrap power-grab tradition, state that users will consent to endorsing all products they buy without their knowledge in return for their fix of zombie vampire monkey robot ninja action, though whether any sane court of law would find this reasonable is another matter.) Certainly, them having removed the ability to opt out of their marketing programme does feel rather sleazy.)

Fear not, though, as Cory says that Facebook, like all other social networks before it, is doomed, by a simple law which limits the lifespan of a social network to the initial period of growth:

Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).
Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.
As more people join a social network, the tensions increase. Turning down a friend request is socially awkward, and unfriending someone literally says to them "you're dead to me". (OMG, teh drama!) As people from all walks of life join your friends list, the range of things that are suitable for discussion among all of them narrows considerably. Eventually, with your boss, your relatives and your friends all reading your profile, you're restricted to the most innocuously content-free of communications, until you stop bothering to log in, and your Facebook account goes the way of your long-moribund Friendster, Tribe and Orkut logins.

Of course, then comes along the next social network service, and the cycle begins again. Perhaps the next service will learn from its predecessors' mistakes and offer users the vitally important ability to compartmentalise information, to make certain parts of one's profile visible only to certain subsets of one's friends list. This is not a new idea; LiveJournal has allowed its users to do this with journal posts for a long time, and Flickr has a somewhat more limited version of this concept (allowing photos to be restricted to people flagged as "family" or "friends"). However, if a social network system is to be able to cope with real-world social relationships, and the fact that people present different aspects of themselves to different friends and acquaintances, such a mechanism is essential.

There are 4 comments on "Why Facebook is doomed":

Posted by: Jeff Fri Nov 30 19:55:57 2007

Facebook have been promising, on their "What's new" page, that they're going to allow us to organise friends into groups so we can decide who sees what. That should help.

now that Facebook has opened the doors to businesses it seems like the platform is more in service of them... it's not just social networking any more, but consumer networking, and I feel weirded out by that.

Posted by: Greg Fri Dec 7 06:13:24 2007

I like Cory's article and your commentary. I think it's good to highlight the life-cyclic nature of social networking sites (SNS), and remember their evolutionary history. I think it's good to include AOL in this list and remind old-timers of how it gradually absorbed into "the Internet".

I did Friendster, which was interesting but never got near critical mass, and then, unavoidably, went on MySpace for music purposes. Now FB has come from nowhere and is taking over the world. I am resisting FB, for now at least.

Two effects of FB domination are (a) MySpace going overnight from "be there or be square" to "tired", and (b) a creeping anxiety that by not being on FB one is missing out on something.

Apart from life cycles / evolutionary trees, another useful way to view SNS is as subsets of "the Internet", in terms of users and functionality. Fundamentally, what people want to do on the Internet is make information available asynchronously, both long-term facts and faster-changing presence/status info, a

Posted by: Greg Fri Dec 7 06:15:09 2007

and send messages to each other. They also need a search mechanism, like a White Pages, that reliably includes anyone they want to find. A handy extra is to be able to group people. "The Internet" does all this already, but only if everyone has a web page for the asynch stuff. Most people don't, because they don't have easy access to a server, nor a way to frequently maintain it. (Those who do may be mystified by the popularity of SNS.)

As any particular SNS grows more features and users, it eventually stops being a subset of "the Internet", to become more-or-less equivalent to it. This is when the effects Cory point out start to kick in. The SNS is indistinguishable from the Internet, and no longer useful.

I have a feeling that if somehow everyone was able to maintain a webpage, cheaply and easily, SNS mania would stop. In the meantime the whole spectacle is rather interesting!

Posted by: acb Fri Dec 7 11:47:51 2007

I'm not sure about that; a web page is a low-level thing, whereas SNSs provide infrastructure (friends-list management, APIs for third-party applications, messaging). Anything which involves rolling your own means of social networking will be about as successful as putting FOAF XML in your homepage; the average users won't know how to use it, and the web-services geeks generally won't bother because a social network without users is useless.

WIRED (I think) had a feature some months ago on ways of replicating Facebook using open technologies; their solution solved 90% of the problem, but the 10% omitted was vitally important to making it viable.

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