Yesterday, some Princeton researchers grabbed a lot of attention by claiming Facebook was a virus and that it was going to die out by 2018. And today, Facebook has needled the study in good humor. But the truth is that the Princeton study is more or less right: The clock is ticking on Facebook, whether it wants to admit it or not.
The Princeton study (link goes to PDF) isn’t actually very groundbreaking; it just applies epidemiology to ideas. The attention-getting part is that when they ran the numbers with the former king of social networking, MySpace, the numbers more or less matched their viral model. That is, MySpace was like a cold that a lot of people got and eventually fought off. Applying the same study, the researchers found Facebook would be in the social media graveyard by 2018.
Here’s the thing: The study is right, but not for the reasons they think. And Facebook itself, even as it laughs, should know better.
There’s No Such Thing As Equilibrium
It’s a common thread in business reporting that you’ll notice just by reading press releases: Every single business is built on the idea that the current market won’t change. But to believe that, especially in a volatile area like social media, is not optimistic: It’s stupid.
The problem Facebook, and also Twitter, will have to deal with is that they have to think long-term and won’t be able to, not when chunks of them are for sale on the open market. Facebook in particular is going to be prone to this, especially as it keeps trying to annoy the hell out of its users and violate their privacy in new and fascinating ways.
Insisting social media will go away is ridiculous: As much as we gripe about the concept, we love it. But social media is built on the idea of costing us nothing in terms of money, and that makes it very, very easy to walk away when something better comes along. We just have no sunk costs, and investing your time is only worth so much; just ask MySpace. That’s part of the reason dirt cheap subscriptions are the future of social media: Not offering ads and not collecting your data will be features.
Thus, all a network has to do is hit a critical mass of users. Facebook has so far largely managed to fend off this problem by either buying possible competitors outright or blatantly copying their competitors and then locking them out of their network. But that strategy isn’t going to work forever, and it’s already showing diminishing returns. Eventually somebody will come along who won’t sell or who beats Facebook at their own game… and whether the company wants to admit it or not, it’ll be sooner rather than later.