Tech observers have been prematurely announcing the death of Facebook for years. Back in 2005, the social network was a hyper-exclusive platform for just a handful of elite schools. Today, the service has 1.2 billion monthly users, including your mother and great-aunt (who are now much more assiduous users than you ever were). Mark Zuckerberg’s site may have outlived many skeptics and steered around the fate of MySpace, but the world’s premier social network now seems to be decidedly ‘uncool’ for a new generation of netizens. This is hardly a death knell for Facebook, but the social networking landscape for younger users will become increasingly crowded in 2014 as new services vie to position themselves as the next Facebook.
Even President Obama seems to be tuned into the face that Facebook is past its prime. Robinson Meyer, the Atlantic’s associate editor covering tech news, recently found himself sitting next to the President in a Washington D.C. coffee shop. President Obama, who had come to speak with a group of young people about his new Affordable Care Act, was overheard saying: “It seems like they [young people] don’t use Facebook anymore.” Meyer’s eavesdropping also revealed that the President is familiar with new social networking services, such as Snapchat and Instagram.
So what? Facebook remains the third most popular site in the US, behind Google and YouTube, and growth prospects remain strong with the untapped potential of the increasingly well-connected developing world. Facebook is also so big that it is hard imagining any other service gaining the necessary momentum to overturn it. Some argue that the service has become so ubiquitous that it will be able to survive the onslaught of new services.
But Facebook’s original users and a new generation of teenagers seem to be leaving the site in droves. The site is beginning to resemble a cyber family reunion and a new wave of net-savvy youths is developing its own ways of connecting. It’s this “cool crowd” of teens and twenty-somethings that first made the social service popular to begin with. If they jump ship, the network’s future attractiveness is severely handicapped and its coolness forever tarnished.
There is little reason to believe that Facebook will be able to magically exempt itself from the natural product lifecycle. As the site dropped its pretense to exclusivity and late followers began to join, early adopters quickly moved on to the next great thing. While Facebook remains ubiquitous, the platform is little more than an address book for a growing number of young people and a skeleton for all the social apps we use that rely on the site.
With the cool kids on the hunt for the next Facebook, entrepreneurs are sparing no effort. Luckily for Facebook though, the next big thing does not seem to be on the market just yet. Niche platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram, which Facebook quickly bought and neutralized, are proliferating, but a veritable alternative to Facebook has yet to emerge.
The next Facebook
Facebook will not be marginalized quickly, but this has not stopped visionaries from beginning to think about what it will look like. One of the few things that is sure is that the next generation of social networking will be mobile. The first generation of digital nomads grew up on the Internet through desktop computers in their parent’s basement. The next generation is now accessing the Internet from their mobile phones.
The rapid success of services like Instagram and Vine, which allow users to share photos and videos, and Whatsapp, a texting application, shows the power of mobile. Facebook, many analysts say, just doesn’t have mobile in its DNA. History has shown that companies have a lot of difficulty in attempting to shed their past. Web 1.0 companies such as Yahoo! and AOL threw billions at innovating and buying start-ups, but the culture of the companies were so engrained that they could not keep up.
Many believe that it is a niche mobile application that will eventually deal a fatal blow to Facebook. Path, a social networking-enabled photo sharing and messaging service, is one that has attracted increasing attention over the past year. The mobile-first service provides a more intimate experience than Facebook, capping users’ friend lists at 50.
Another new service named Highlight began to make buzz this past year as well. The app gives users real-time information about the people all around them. “Highlight gives users a sixth sense about what these people all around you like and dislike, and whether you might be friends,” says founder and CEO Paul Davison.
The diversity of start-ups competing to be Facebook’s killer shows just how early on we are. Few experts can agree on anything beyond the common consensus that Web 3.0 will be mobile. Some even argue that Facebook’s demise will not be another service taking its coveted place, but the end of the giant, catch-all social network. Instead, they argue, we’ll see a proliferation of niche social networks that will be only loosely integrated. No matter what the future holds in store though, history has taught us that few products have ever been able to reinvent themselves sufficiently to escape the inevitability of the product lifecycle. Facebook’s future may be counted on one hand or two, but the site will not retain its hegemonic position forever.