From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:
So 1 billion people now visit Facebook at least once a month, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who celebrated with that weird new ad. That’s an amazing milestone for a company only eight years old, fully justifying the glut of press coverage this morning. But is it getting too big for its own good?
I’m not just talking about the usual stuff a company faces as it grows very large–antitrust concerns, privacy worries, hiring quality, and the like. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many others have faced and still face these issues. But such challenges haven’t taken any of them down. And even as they start (or continue) to be concerns for Facebook, they likely won’t sink it either.
The biggest concern I have is whether Facebook could–as a direct result of getting what seems likely to be just about everyone online to use it eventually–lose what’s special about it. After all, is it enough simply to be the biggest social network? Does being the biggest, as Zuckerberg and many others inside and outside the company implicitly assume, automatically make it the best?
I’m not so sure. And that’s without even falling back on the old look-what-happened-to-MySpace argument. The fact is that Facebook doesn’t do a lot of the social activities people participate in online as well as others. Twitter is way better in many ways for disseminating news. LinkedIn still does professional networking far better. No one has made video sharing easier than YouTube (yes, it’s a social service too). Pinterest, Reddit, and others are seeing massive growth thanks to a pretty clear focus on doing one thing well.
And Facebook? As well as it facilitates connections with friends, its overriding appeal is not any particular features. (OK, except for sharing photos–but even there, it felt the need to spend a billion bucks to buy Instagram.) Facebook’s key advantage now is largely that all your friends are on Facebook too.
Of course, that’s a huge technical and business feat for Facebook–nothing to be minimized, as evidenced by the fact that no one else accomplished it. But is that enough to catapult it to the next level?
Maybe. But as its growth slows, I wonder if essentially becoming a social utility that Zuckerberg long said Facebook should be is distinctive enough a mission to maintain its momentum. One random item that gave me pause today came in passing on a BusinessInsider post on Facebook’s recent move to allow advertisers to “retarget” its users with ads:
The most valuable inventory for re-targeting until now has been Yahoo Mail, because:
- It has huge scale.
- It’s engaging enough that you’d only want to click on an ad to leave if you really wanted to leave.
- The people who use it tend to leave it open as a tab in their browser all day.
In all three ways, Facebook.com is very similar to Yahoo Mail.
Yikes. Facebook is now like a boring email service? Now, it’s probably unfair to extrapolate this comparison in a particular realm of advertising to Facebook overall. But it reflects the reality that Facebook’s ubiquity is inexorably steering it toward becoming something like the new television. Another mass medium, even if it’s a uniquely interactive mass medium.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there’s a lot right with it, for Facebook’s business. I just can’t shake a nagging feeling that achieving this ubiquity–as Zuckerberg put it today, to “connect the rest of the world”–isn’t enough of a raison d’etre.
So the question now is what Facebook will do with that ubiquity. Maybe simply facilitating those connections is enough. But at this milestone moment the company itself chose to highlight, it’s worth posing some existential questions to go along with that existential ad:
Why is Facebook here?
Is sheer ubiquity sufficient for Facebook to achieve Zuckerberg’s lofty goals?
As Facebook becomes a service for everyone, does it become special to no one?
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