On Wednesday (May 16th), I was interviewed by CBC writer Andre Mayer about my opinions on Facebook's future. This post contains the points I used to justify my predictions that Facebook's on a road to failure in the long run and some opinions regarding their recent software changes.

The Walled Garden and Forced Reciprocity

Facebook built its empire on reciprocal relationships; there are no one-way friendships on Facebook (or at least until subscriptions there weren’t, more about that later). This is not reflective of human relationships – all of us have a variety of relationship types, and if you’re a content creator with any audience you have never invested attention in, you are the target of a one way relationship. Twitter and Google+ have recognized the value of permitting subscription based relationships, both of them offering a basic ‘follow’ or ‘circle’ subscription relationship, but then have additional features for organizing and listening.

A photo of a cartoon character sitting at a computer that has the text above it, 'SEND A GIFT! NOW!' The cartoon character responds, 'OK, OK, SHEESH!'

"Forced reciprocity in social network games" - by Yvette Wohn

When coupled with Facebook’s limit of 5,000 friends per personal account, deciding when to transition to a Facebook Page has been a necessary consideration for any ascending celebrity. However, on September 14th, 2001, Facebook launched a subscription feature for personal accounts, meaning that having a page was, from that point forward, unnecessary for personal brands. The new Timeline means the differences between personal accounts and Pages is now lesser, which may be Facebook’s attempt to remedy their about-face on reciprocity.

Ignoring the technical details, Facebook’s culture was not built on asymmetry so just offering the option is not going to change the user culture. If they had gone full out and forced users to adopt an asymmetrical model by changing all ‘friendships’ into reciprocal following relationships, they might have been able to stem Google+'s flood of new users. If they were to try this kind of a switch now, it would seriously alienate a rapidly diversifying internet population that has come to see Facebook as the personal network to share with close friends – not to mention the danger it would spell for their already poor reputation for respecting privacy.

I wonder though, whether this might have been the only possible model that would have allowed Facebook to rise to prominence. If they had used a Twitter-like broadcasting model back in 2005 when they launched, would they have made it this far? I’m of the opinion that Zuckerberg chose the reciprocal model because the social consequences of destroying the link of Friendship (one of Facebook’s most valuable assets) were sufficiently high as to discourage unfriending.  This is reflected in their choice of small, difficult to find icons for the ‘Unfriend action’ – they have no interest in helping you unfriend your Facebook connections.

As the importance of developing a personal brand becomes embedded in our internet culture, forced reciprocity, or as Dwyer reminded me in his article, “the Walled Garden model,” will prove a barrier to expanding your personal network. I predict a globall shift in awareness of reputation data that will encourage users to increasingly delete data, limit content and look for a new, pristine network where they can build their reputation profile.

Social Channelling: Where’s the ‘World Broadcast’ Mode?

Facebook is focused around the newsfeed – there is no Facebook-wide search tool, no way to see what multiple users are saying about something particular. Some analytics companies have begun offering keyword-based data retrieval for public Facebook personal accounts and Pages, but nothing exists that is cheaply available to the average user. This will hurt Facebook in the long run since etiquette surrounding content creation and interaction is changing rapidly; Twitter and Google+ are acclimatizing their users to receiving specific interactions from outside of their personal connections. The network growth and diversification potential of open-forum social networks has greater staying power than the ‘personal network,’ IMO, but Google+ already offers clear content privacy filters with the option to post in ‘world broadcast’ mode. If you can do both at once, doesn’t that make the most sense?

Facebook has done a poor job of helping people organize themselves around topics; Pages and Groups are simply not enough. Their recent launch of Interest Lists are a way for people to package Pages, but seem a little like a shot at the rapidly growing Flipboard. It’s not difficult to conclude these tactics insufficient, for the simple reason that Interest Lists are not as accessible on mobile on Flipboard’s visually-pleasing application. Facebook needs to leverage its massive userbase to beat out its competitors in pushing breaking news by offering a manner to broadcast to everyone and to scan these broadcasts sent to everyone.

It seems to me that we are unlikely to see this feature anytime soon. While a nifty way for companies to borrow memes for advertising purposes, it would be such a shift away from the ‘personal’ focus they’ve taken for the Timeline and might upset their userbase. While I would not put it past Facebook, I suspect if they launched an open broadcast mode there would be overwhelming negative feedback, which they will be more sensitive to after sharing control with their new investors.

Moving Too Slowly to Mobile

Facebook’s mobile apps are severely lacking in functionality and have yet to properly adapt to the value provided by the Timeline. Moreover, there is significant inconsistency in user experience for pages, decreasing the value for businesses looking to engage users on-the-go. No question that Facebook is long overdue for an app re-design and it would be great if they rolled in some of their recent acquisitions too.

The Instagram acquisition might be a protective move, since Facebook has yet to properly leverage their massive photodatabase on phones. Also, their recent announcement of a Facebook App Store smacks of ‘we know we need to be more mobile-friendly.’ However,  as Tim Bradshaw and April Dembosky pointed out, Facebook is not the owner of a mobile device from which to push their platform and apps. It will be a nice change from the current eye-sore, but won’t improve their prospects on mobile.

While Facebook has been making acquisitions and big news, Twitter released this news:

“Like Twitter for iPhone and Twitter for Android, mobile.twitter.com is fast, like a native mobile app; it uses one-third less bandwidth than the previous iteration. We’re rolling out this new mobile web experience starting today, and will continue to make Twitter the most accessible way to connect with the world, even with the weakest signals and the simplest devices.”

Facebook has recently been losing users in North America and will probably continue to earn better growth in markets where access to internet is limited. However, since mobile devices may well be the first internet experience for users in these markets, and there is no guaranteeing the quality of connection in regions, I think Twitter’s decision to streamline their software is perfectly timed. As Facebook continues to decline under its own weight in North America, Twitter is now poised to draw from their remaining source of user growth with their more accessible, simple interface.

The Facebook Timeline as an Aggregator

There are still many unsatisfied niche populations in many different corners of the internet and for the next several years I think we’ll see continued hyperspecialization as the cost of producing social networks decreases and new groups grow and proliferate. Throughout this expansion period, there will be an increasing need for aggregator services that bring together content from multiple social networks into a single profile.

The number of recent ‘landing page’ services (ie: About.MeGlos.siFlavours.me) are an indicator of the insufficient job that the major social networks are doing at aggregating content from the rapidly proliferating small, specialized networks. The Timeline is evidently an attempt to reposition Facebook as the aggregator for all your social content and their marketing around “friction-less sharing” is another attempt to dispel (justifiable) user fears about broadcasting clicks inadvertently via passive sharing. Suggestions that Mark Zuckerberg is an advocate for radical transparency might explain their strategy, although IMO actively encouraging seamless sharing will always get construed as forcing openness on users whenever something goes wrong. Facebook’s privacy controls and definitely some of the best out there, but coupled with Facebook’s history and the high effort investment for users who have many apps, they become an easy scape-goat whenever a user makes a mistake with their sharing.

Open Access for Attention Data?

The major product that many of these services peddle is our attention (my 'What is Attention Economics?' post). They use data regarding our attention that they measure primarily in clicks and page-residence time, then they sell the additional information they can glean from these clicks to advertisers. Nearly 1 billion people believe that giving away access to their attention a social network is worth the ability to use their site. I think that as attention-tracking technologies improve and users desire an increasing amount of access to their personal data, social networks will be forced to go open access. In this kind of future, as Gerd Leonhard put it, every form of media will be widgetized and used for “narrowcasting.” I would extend his prediction by suggesting we will begin to focus our interactions via personally-controlled spaces (so we can control our own attention data), releasing information selectively to our multitude of widgets, sharing ourselves in increasingly specific manners to targeted audiences. It would probably look a lot like Google+.

Caveats

Important to note: Facebook has a massive lead. With the huge backing their IPO will provide and their already sizeable userbase, they have a very healthy lead on their competitors. I don't think we'll see Facebook disappear for at least another 5-10 years, but we may see them start to lose more ground in North America and Europe in the next 2-3 years. If Facebook's public status changes its tactics and pits it against the interests of its userbase, they could lose large chunks of their audience to variations on the 'Quit Facebook' memes. Or maybe, they're on top of it? I'd be interested in hearing your views on its future in the comments, or on any of my widgetized channels.