Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Future of Facebook?

So back in March, I received a request from a Columbia University journalism student, Anne Bompart, to comment on reports of the unexaggerated death of Facebook coming about in the near future, or at least a drastic decline in the social networking site's popularity. The article was published, ironically enough in one of the last print issues of the Ivy League school's student paper, the Columbia Spectator, under the title of Interfacing the Future, with the subtitle, Is the social media giant's monopoly in danger? It was dated March 27th, and here's how the article began:

With the advent of Facebook, other social networking websites have become obsolete. Myspace? So yesterday. Even new ones that have attempted to launch during Facebook’s reign, like Google Plus, don’t measure up. It seems apparent that social networking websites have a limited lifespan—they’re born, are popular for a few years, and then die.

Is Facebook destined to suffer the same fate? A Forbes article by Gene Marks in 2013 discussed Facebook’s diminishing appeal to teenagers. And a January 2014 study by Princeton researchers John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler concurred: “Facebook will … lose 80 percent of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”

Yet, Facebook’s recent purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram, along with its acquisition of several other popular apps, suggest otherwise.

So what do I think of all this, you may want to know, or even if you don't, here goes:

Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, says, “I believe that Facebook would like to be the main platform through which most people access the Internet.”

Clearly, Facebook is hinting at its conquest in monopolizing the social networking industry by manipulating its users to share everything through a single platform. Strate adds, “Facebook’s purchases of Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. is not just about an ambition to rule the online world, so to speak, but also motivated by fear of losing the primary position they hold at this moment in time.”

Should Facebook become the “home page” of the Internet, it would definitely guarantee its success—not only through popularity, but also monetarily. As Strate describes, “By providing a universal interface, Facebook would be guaranteed a massive and reliable amount of advertising revenue.”

Okay, how about some facts to go with my opinion?

According to a 2014 New York Times article, Facebook’s total revenue in its last quarter was $2.59 billion. Mobile advertising generated more than half, while three-quarters of its 757 million users logged on using mobile devices. Facebook’s acquisitions of popular apps, then, are its attempts at garnering interest among teens, whose usage generates the most revenue.

Also interesting is Facebook’s addition of 50 new gender options in February. In addition to “male” and “female,” users can now choose a “custom” option that allows them to choose identifications like “transgender,” “cisgender,” “intersex,” and more.

By increasing the identities it encompasses, Facebook hopes to increase and satisfy its target audience. Its newest addition establishes itself as a progressive venture—its message is that it is the only social networking site relevant to millennials.

Facebook’s appeal to youth may be a response to the 2013 Forbes article’s prediction of its eventual decline. The article claims that the popularity of websites like Tumblr shows that people are moving to networks where they can use pseudonyms and avatars instead of real names and faces.

However, despite Facebook’s lack of anonymity, it has striven to allow self-expression as much as possible. In 2013, it tweaked privacy settings so that users ages 13 to 17 would be able to share posts publicly. Its addition of a mini-newsfeed provided another medium for users to constantly keep up with what their friends are doing.

And back to me for some thoughts on what this all means:

As Strate explains, “Apart from trying to remain cool and trendy, adding gender options also provides Facebook with additional data that can be used for advertising and marketing purposes.” By giving its users another way to identify themselves, Facebook can better provide users with ads that cater to their interests—resulting in a more personalized experience.

And Facebook appears to be taking preemptive steps to ensure its success. It constantly updates its aesthetic, the most notable being its introduction of the timeline in 2011. This constant revolutionizing creates the idea that Facebook is evolving alongside its users. Strate says, “[Mark] Zuckerberg and his colleagues are all too well aware of the volatility of a dynamic, rapidly evolving media environment. They are desperately trying to avoid having some other service do to them what they did to Myspace.”

And at this point, Bompart poses the big question:

But is such an environment sustainable? Online social networking is a relatively new phenomenon; the first online information-sharing board launched in 1978. Social media has developed rapidly and gained much popularity since, and there appears to be a viable future for the industry.

After all, social networking did exist before the Internet. As Laudone says, “The global reach of social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, are enabling connections across borders. Social networking sites—and technology more generally—will help facilitate face-to-face social networking.”

But social media’s volatility could mean that Facebook’s eventual demise is inevitable. Despite its attempts to advertise its modernity, a day might come when it cannot keep up with trends.

And let's hear from another scholar now:

Thomas DiPrete, professor of sociology at Columbia, adds, “Facebook’s fear is that some new company might emerge that offers features that lure enough users away from their platform to create a bandwagon effect. So they not only try to improve their own system, but they look to buy out potential competitors.”

More likely, Facebook might one day be unable to purchase most popular apps. DiPrete concurs, “Eventually some new company will avoid being bought out when small, and will emerge as an attractive alternative to Facebook.”

So, what's the conclusion?

Even so, the number of Facebook users increased by 22 percent from 2012 to 2013. Today, there are 1.3 billion monthly active Facebook users, of whom 48 percent log in on any given day. Every 20 minutes on Facebook, there are 1 million links shared, 2 million friends requested, and 3 million messages sent.

With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why Facebook is the social media industry’s behemoth. And much to the dismay of procrastinators pulling all-nighters in Butler, Facebook is not going away anytime soon.

And now, to round things off, contextualize my quotes, and clarify the process by which quotes are extracted from comments, here are my original set of answers to four questions posed to me about the future of Facebook:

1. I believe that Facebook would like to be the main platform through which most people access the internet. By providing a universal interface, they would be guaranteed a massive and reliable amount of advertising revenue. But their purchases of Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., is not just about an ambition to rule the online world, so to speak, but also motivated by fear of losing the primary position their hold at this moment in time. Zuckerberg and his colleagues are all too well of the history of new media, and how companies such as AOL, Yahoo, IBM, and Microsoft all appeared to dominate the industry at one time, only to be left behind due to innovation and the volatility of a dynamic, rapidly evolving media environment. In particular, they are aware of how quickly they passed by MySpace, once the major force in social media, and they are desperately trying to stay on top of the changes going on, and avoid having some other service do to them what they did to MySpace.

2. Adding new options to the category of gender, and elsewhere, is an attempt to appeal to users, and particularly necessary because Facebook offers a very structured environment, which means that it constantly has to be updated or become outmoded. But apart from trying to remain cool and trendy, adding options also provides them with additional data that can be used for advertising and marketing purposes.

3. I agree that it will one day be obsolete. As I mentioned, this is a volatile industry, and we've seen it happen to others, such as AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace. In particular, younger individuals want to find a space of their own, separate from their parents, and the more that Facebook becomes known as an advertising medium, and as one that violates privacy, the more that individuals will sign off from the service. But the main thing is that innovation will eventually result in something else that will take Facebook's place, maybe a service that better utilizes mobile technology.

4. Social networking existed before we became technologically interconnected, simply in the form of personal connections, and technology has only intensified the fact. We are a social species, so social networking as a phenomenon will continue via whatever technologies are made available to us. McLuhan famously spoke of a global village, and new media are fully realizing that concept, for good and for ill, in increasingly more intense ways. There is no question that the degrees of separation within the world's population are decreasing dramatically through our technologies, and that the degrees of connection are increasing every day.

And there you have it. I can't say when we all will start forgetting about Facebook, but I can say that there are quite a few folks out there who would say that it can't happen soon enough. Maybe we need to start a pool and take bets on when it'll happen? I call dibs on 2018...

1 comment:

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