Game over, Facebook? (or How Facebook Keeps Shooting Itself In The Foot)

Why Facebook Is The New Yahoo – Datamation

This blog piece really supplements the points made in this article (link above ). The points below are essentially to further amplify and expand on the contentions in this piece.

Facebook logo

Image via Wikipedia

Early adopters will recall Facebook as a rickety, buggy apps which had very few people who had gotten on to the bandwagon and a whole lot more of bugs together with a  generally pretty crappy UI. While after the dot.com bust at the beginning of this century, clueless commentators & hapless analysts have been desperate to hype any emerging trend to the skies, Facebook progressed & grew beyond its wildest dreams more because it happened to be in the right place at the right time & owing to the many errors of omission & commission by its forerunners & contemporaries.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

All through this spectacular growth story, Facebook kept on playing fast & footloose with the privacy & the needs of some of its serious users. It kept on playing around with its UI, which, despite several makeover attempts, remained crappy & reminded many people of Web 0.5 rather than Web 2.0.  It was a hacker’s delight and it put up a brave front  every time someone demonstrated the relative ease with which it could be hacked into. It kept on experimenting with the length of texts for posts & comments for posts without so much as a by-your-leave or even a warning to most unsuspecting users. It merrily downgraded photographs uploaded for display, a fact unknown to most of the hordes for whom uploading to Facebook pics of your latest vacation or your dog became a status symbol of sorts.

While Facebook has of late been demonstrating a zeal for real names (because Google+ is a real name network from the time the beta was launched? ) for much of its existence, it didn’t give a damn about who registered on the network, beyond the cursory reminder that pre-teens were not allowed. I know of several people who promptly proceeded to have Facebook accounts for their dogs & cats & even proudly proclaimed the ‘fact’ to their friends. Many others opened multiple accounts on Facebook, under a host of pseudonyms & assumed names and let their ‘special’ friends know which account they used for which purpose (for a hint think Farmville & Cityville and the need to conceal from a certain ‘set’ of friends the fact that one was incurably addicted to it). In any case Facebook didn’t care two hoots about what got on to your Stream from numerous Farmville posts for example, auto-generated when your friends got on to it.  Messages & pokes from perfect strangers followed the same pattern. Anybody could write anything on your wall or read your comments to others’ posts in many cases, without you either knowing or being able to do anything about it. Your friends could add you on to any groups they happened to be a part of, without bothering to think whether you may actually be reluctant or unwilling to join a particular group they happen to be part of.

When serious users & geeks raised howls of protest about this, Facebook embarked on the first of its many hamhanded attempts to appease the unhappy & outraged users & introduce controls for users’ accounts & privacy. At times deliberately and, on other occasions, unintentionally, patching & taking care of a particular area of concern seemed to open up new cracks & areas of unhappiness.

Amidst all this, Facebook’s numbers kept growing because for the vast majority of people, privacy, security or poor user UIs & unannounced, ad-hoc restrictions mattered little. Aside from registering one’s dog & cat, it became an online rolodex for many and once its numbers grew beyond a certain threshold, peer pressure ensured that most people felt compelled to open an account on Facebook at least to prove to their friends that they weren’t anti-social in the least and kept themselves abreast of new developments in this ‘digital age’. Some proceeded to ‘befriend’ just about any Johnny who could be found on FB & was willing to be added, thus growing their no. of friends relatively quickly into the high 3-digits category, assuming that this fact alone gave them some kind of a bragging right over their friends whose ‘friend counts’ were nowhere near that. If you have seen posts or comments from anything more than 10% – 15% of your ‘friends’ on Facebook, you must belong to an exceptional minority indeed!

Facebook has from time to time quoted the total no. of people who have registered. Information regarding what percentage or numbers out of these have been dormant and for how long, hasn’t been forthcoming. Whereas e-mail clients knock off users who haven’t had any activity on their account for say 6 months or one year, Facebook never ever knocks off anyone and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to leave even if he or she wants to. It has always been designed to be a one-way street.

There are many who suffered through all the twists & turns of a badly designed & executed app like Facebook simply because by the time they decided it was decidedly crappy and were planning to leave, most of their ‘friends’ had gotten on to it. Added to it was the fact that it was the most visible and high-profile social media platform in most parts of the world and hence there was peer pressure to at least stay on nominally, irrespective of whether one liked or hated the experience. Along the way of course there were the added attractions of games, pages for organizations & businesses and e-commerce among others. Facebook also managed its marketing & media efforts quite well, aside from the misfortune of getting caught out in its efforts to deliberately and, in a sustained way, slander Google.

Quel ricco sfondato di Mark Zuckerberg, founde...

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

To use an analogy which will be quite understandable to Indian readers, you don’t start with an Ambassador car and then try to make it into a Honda City say, by periodically tinkering with the carburretor, steering wheel or spark plugs. Despite any tweaks to these subsystems the overall experience would still remain a distinctly unsatisfactory one. Of course from time to time groups of people just switched off & turned to various alternatives and though that outflow has gotten stronger in recent months, overall, it didn’t really matter much. There were always newer markets to conquer & newer people to sucker and, as a result, the total numbers kept growing, albeit at a much slower pace than what had been experienced sometime earlier.

All through this process, Facebook copied bits & pieces from here & there and then once it grew big and attracted major funds, went on a spree acquiring smaller, promising start-ups. It kept tweaking privacy settings, UIs & groups but never ever came up with the big idea or a really innovative one. Copying others has always been its forte which was amply evident when it revamped Groups and made it as close as possible to popular e-groups which had been in existence for ages, with a few more bells & whistles added.

Ergo, its desperate strategy of copying Google+ & Twitter now & remaining relevant & hopefully ahead in the race is nothing surprising.  Given its near-total bankruptcy of big ideas & innovative ones, one would in fact have been quite surprised if it hadn’t done so.

In doing so however it has given short shrift to much of its loyal user base. Most of Facebook’s active users aren’t too bothered about privacy & possibly quite like the idea of broadcasting to the world what they had that morning for breakfast and taking a peek at comments made by their ‘friends’ for posts which should not concern them normally. Much like Twitter, Facebook possibly owed its growth & success to the fact that it managed to adhere largely to the KISS (Keep It Simple & Stupid ) principle which would have been comforting to most of its users. It had a great opportunity to distinguish itself from johnnies-come-lately like Google+ which quite a few people might find somewhat complicated & confusing to test-drive & muster. Alas, in its desperation, it is trying its best to become another Google+ by churning out poor versions & pale imitations of G+’s major features without realizing that, in the medium & long-term, it can’t win the battle with Google because Google, in addition to being the big honchos of Search, has its fingers in over half -a-dozen apps like YouTube, Picasa, Documents, Reader, Calendar, Talk & Maps, in addition to having control over cloud computing, browsers, operating systems & even mobile hardware companies now. And, end of the day, content and its easy shareability & deliverability rules above all else, doesn’t it?

Jerry Yang and his co-founders were the Internet big honchos in the late 90s, having their fingers in everything from Searches to E-mails, E-groups, News portals & Blogs among others. It took less than a decade for it to be reduced to the status of an also-ran in virtually each of these areas. Given the fact that upward spiral & downward plunge cycles have gotten shorter in the Internet era, one finds it hard to visualize Facebook & Zuckerberg five years from now as anything other than an also-ran, still bent on mindlessly copying from the newer games in town what they perceive as ‘killer-features’, to regain lost glory. Didn’t someone tell them that mere imitation is not only the best form of flattery but also the first big steps towards ceding a position of leadership?

P.S.

A couple of instances of how patchy Facebook’s hasty makeover is:

1. Facebook now allows you to choose from among lists. Unlike g+ though which allows you to select one or more circles, just an individual even or all circles, extended circles & public, Facebook gives you the choice of choosing a particular list, a predefined category like Friends or Public generally which is far more restrictive in addition to not being intuitive at all.

Facebook appears to be forming Smart-lists of friends by primarily selecting those among your friends who post or comment much more frequently than others. Sadly, this can hardly be the basis for your default choice of ‘good friends’. While one can manage & tweak the list as desired, the default  option seems downright hazardous. Remember when Buzz tried to do something similar and it blew up in their face (possibly helped along by Facebook, its media managers & ‘friendly’ blogs & publications).

Facebook now lets you follow folks who opt to be Subscribed to. How is that any different from Pages that one may have elected to follow earlier? Extending the page functionality to individuals & making it an opt-in feature can hardly be called a major innovation or upgrade, isn’t it?

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  1. #1 by Raja Mitra on September 19, 2011 - 9:57 AM

    An excerpt of comments when I shared this piece in Facebook:
    Arin Basu:
    Facebook and google plus are two different entities, and I see no reason why there should necessarily be any comparison between the two. Besides, google plus despite it’s features is nowhere near Facebook in it’s popularity yet and as you and I have tested out on several occasions, is still to mature. Remember that despite several exhortations, people in this group are still with Facebook more than they are with google plus, and that includes your activity and responses in both media (I find you still actively participate in Facebook and with equal vigor in Facebook). And then all you know is google is going to pull the plug out of this venture any time they like (what happened to google wave?). Facebook is here to stay and will possibly grow as it has already started adding several interesting features as well.

    Having said that, I think the scope and audience of google. Plus and Facebook will be different. There is no doubt that google has the opportunity to be far more integrated and wth the new API released with tear away with new features coming. But Facebook too has it’s own niche and continues to improve as j see it.

    after three months of playing with google plus on a regular basis, I see it mostly as a more sophisticated version of blogging, photo sharing app, and possibly a media for gurus to share tutorials, not so much as an effort to build communities. Facebook doesn’t do that either, but it has grown organically and allows tighter networks. Where is the glue to hold and build conversations in google plus? Other than hangouts, what in your opinion is the USP of google in the marketplace of social media?

    Ujjal Choudhury:
    I know for sure from experiential knowledge that there is a significant niche which is quite happy with FB as-is for meeting their limited requirements. As you mentioned sometime earlier it could be the Mashi Pishi (or whatever you had said) stereotype meaning essentially the not so adventurous type; but it will be difficult to wean this group away from FB just because of some of the bells and whistles of G+. My sense is that this group includes a large number of people.

    Though I get the sense of what you are saying and quite agree with one size never fitting all (true for many situations other than the one being discussed 🙂 ) I can assure you that there is a dedicated niche of private users in Kolkata which prefer the Amby over the Santro and Toyota simply because you don’t have to worry about your bodywork getting screwed when you are in an Amby, meaning any damage doesn’t stand out as it would for others. There are other good reasons too.

  2. #2 by Raja Mitra on September 19, 2011 - 10:04 AM

    Excerpt of my responses to some of the comments:

    In response to Arin Basu & Ujjal Choudhury:
    That would be an Apples & Oranges comparison. G+ is not yet out of Beta, not yet ready for launch, not even 3 months into its existence so how can it even be compared to Facebook which has been around for over 7 years? Possibly a fairer comparison would be where FB was 3 months after it was launched publicly (though g+ is not yet launched publicly)

    Google WAVE was an utterly low-key effort which the world hardly knew about. A handful of IT guys & geeks opted to test drive it while it was in closed Beta. It didn’t fly and I think Google didn’t even want to put in the effort to make it soar. It pulled the plug on it which was the right business decision. G+ on the other hand is a platform which is baked across their entire spectrum of apps & platforms & is designed to be much more than just a social media platform eventually so the chances of Google pulling the plug on it anytime in the foreseeable future are virtually non-existent.

    No one is saying that FB will close shop. Such views are mere sensationalism & possibly the creation of ‘motivated’ or ‘paid’ commentators or columnists even.My contention, like the article quoted, is that it will almost certainly be reduced to the status of an also-ran like Yahoo unless it can bring in major innovations & adopt a positioning quite distinct from say g+. There isn’t space for 2 mainstream social media platforms of the same kind with mostly the same features. Twitter which came into existence much after Facebook & also grew spectacularly after their first couple of years, did so because its features & positioning was so different from that of FB. Besides, niche areas will continue to be taken up more by newer players. Path which is growingly popular among certain sections in the U.S. market owes its growth to the fact that its main features are quite different than that of FB or Twitter. Interestingly a large number of Path’s users are those who have tired of or pulled out of FB.

    There is a whole spectrum & hierarchy of needs across users of social media so one person’s needs could be quite different from another’s. There is no one size fits all. I recall as an early-adopter of all kinds of social media that FB got huge boosts when it introduced Games though the fact left me totally disinterested.

    Ujjal – I think I’ve answered your issues in the blog and in my earlier replies. Like I said, depending on one’s hierarchy of needs one may or may not feel the need to get on to a platform. Besides, there are always the early adopters for anything & I find that relatively the early adopters of G+ across my spectrum of ‘friends’ has been generally a lot higher than was the case for FB even though g+ is still in beta & not launched even.

    Finally ‘happiness’ about any product or service is always relative. Lots of guys were quite happy with Ambassadors till they witnessed and starting riding around in the Toyotas & the Santros.

    Similarly when Google search first appeared in the late 90s, most people saw it as another niche application with a funny name & not even a serious competitor to Yahoo which was the big daddy of searches at that time.

  3. #3 by Prince of Darkness on September 19, 2011 - 10:15 AM

    Facebook is the site I visit the most no. of times during the course of a normal day. This forecast must be some fantasy of yours. How did you dream this up?

  4. #4 by Tim on April 25, 2013 - 6:37 PM

    It’s great that you are getting thoughts from this piece of writing as well as from our argument made here.

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