Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Facebook goes viral in a whole new way?

Facebook might die off in the next two years, but it won't be because it's like a virus.

Some academics at Princeton have hypothesised that Facebook spread like an infectious disease and will die out like one too, as the world becomes immune to its attractions. Cavalierly, they predict the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017. They use as their primary data the analogous case of MySpace.

This post is very popular on LinkedIn for some reason.

But the learned professors are looking for gifts at the wrong end of the horse. The question here is not whether Facebook will die - maybe it will, maybe it won't - but what will kill it off? Predicting a murder without an idea of the villain is a rum business.

MySpace didn't fail by itself: it got beaten. By Facebook. The paper treats an "online networking service" (ONS) as a discrete infectious disease: an affliction; a curable thing; something to be considered in isolation. 

This misses the trick altogether: the interesting thing isn't the virus; it's the susceptibility to illness in the population. Unlike a virus, Facebook doesn't feed on an bug. It feeds on a feature: the human desire to connect. People develop immunities to disease; they don't to the need to socially interact. Connecting isn't an illness: it's a part of the human condition.

You might say people developed an immunity to MySpace, but a better view is that the MySpace virus got wiped out by the Facebook virus. The people stayed sick (if you call being human "sick").

Facebook doesn't feed on an bug. It feeds on a feature: the human desire to connect. People develop immunities to disease; they don't to the need to socially interact. 

So for Facebook to die, another epidemic needs to kill it. That is, Facebook will die if and only if something else surfaces to challenge Facebook, which:
  • (a) can satisfy all the critical needs Facebook currently satisfies, and
  • (b) can satisfy additional needs Facebook can't, and
  • (c) Facebook doesn't react quickly enough to either kill it off (i.e. buy it - see Instagram) or provide an alternative to (b) before the competitor gets comparable critical mass.
And Facebook has a hell of a lot of critical mass for a competitor to catch up on.

So who would this competitor be? Such a killer virus would have to either:
  • Be super stealthy (hard to build a billion customers servicing a new need without anyone noticing); OR
  • Have a USP that rocks and which absolutely can't be replicated by Facebook (in the post information revolution is that even possible?); OR
  • Be an established player who has resources and critical mass already.
The first two options are remote (that said, Google, Facebook and Twitter could all qualify as "Super-Stealthy" meaning the prevailing market leaders they overturned were super stupid). The third is plausible. So who are the likely candidates?
  • Twitter? Fails on (a) above and has no plausible strategy for fixing that. (Twitter  (public, impersonal) and Facebook (private, personal) do very different things, and can cohabit, provided no-one figures a way of achieving both in a meaningful way. But see Google+ below)
  • Amazon has the scope to do it but doesn't seem to be trying to at present - maybe the Kindle is the stalking horse for that. The USP of Amazon is *you can buy stuff here*
  • Apple? The most likely to fail as its unique selling proposition has all but vanished in the last couple of years (whereas Facebook's it still pretty much intact as far as I can see)
  • Google+? It certainly could fill that space, and could be the killer app that can be Twitter and Facebook at once - but it's taking its sweet time so far.
  • Microsoft? Loooong shot but, the xBox One is pretty cool...
Of these the best shots would be Amazon or Google. But unless Facebook is managed even more incompetently than MySpace was, I reckon it will be a long time coming.


  1. I hear via internet we are not Facebook customers but simply data-mined for paying Facebook clients. Pretty yucky being used and exploited. I look ahead to a new more private invention (better than FB and Google+) but I agree we're not there yet. Justin Timberlake bought MySpace but it hasn't improved yet some musicians are still using it.
    So my question is, can there be an invention without mining us?

  2. Isn't that just the (literal) price we pay for the free service that is facebook? Likewise Google?

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