Message from the Future: How Facebook died
By JOEL HLADECEK
It was a hot, sunny Boston morning in July, 2033—and suddenly—it was a freezing London evening in Feb 2013, and I had an excruciating headache.
I have no clue what happened. No flash, no tunnel, no lights. It’s like the last 20 years of my life just never happened. Except that I remember them.
Not knowing what else to do, I went to the house I used to live in then. I was surprised that my family was there, and everyone was young again. I seemed to be the only one who remembers anything. At some point I dropped the subject because my wife thought I’d gone crazy. And it was easier to let her think I was joking.
It’s hard to keep all this to myself though, so, maybe as therapy, I’ve decided to write it here. Hardly anyone reads this so I guess I can’t do too much damage. I didn’t write this stuff the first time around, and I’m a little worried that the things I share might change events to the point that I no longer recognize them, so forgive me if I keep some aspects to myself.
As it is I already screwed things up by promptly forgetting my wife’s birthday. Jesus Christ, I was slightly preoccupied, I mean, I’m sorry, ok? I traveled in time and forgot to pick up the ring that I ordered 10 years ago… and picked up once already. All sorts of stuff changed after that for a while. But then somehow it all started falling back into place.
Anyway—that’s why I’m not telling you everything. Just enough to save the few of you who read this some pain.
Today I’ll talk about Facebook.
Ok, in the future Facebook, the social network, dies. Well, ok, not “dies” exactly, but “shrivels into irrelevance”, which was maybe just as bad.
Bets are off for Facebook the company. I wasn’t there long enough to find out—it might survive, or it might not, depends on how good they were… sorry, are at diversifying.
At this point perhaps I should apologize for my occasional shifting tenses. I’m finding that time travel makes it all pretty fuzzy. But I’ll do my best to explain what happened… Happens. Will happen.
Anyway, seeing Facebook back here again in full form, I marvel at the company’s ability to disguise the obviousness of the pending events in the face of analysts, and corporate scrutiny, with so many invested and so much to lose.
But hindsight being 20/20, they should have seen—should see—that the Facebook social network is destined to become little more than a stale resting place for senior citizens, high-school reunions and, well, people whose eyes don’t point in the same direction (it’s true, Facebook Graph showed that one, it was a joke for a while—people made memes—you can imagine). Grandmothers connecting with glee clubs and other generally trivial activities—the masses and money gone.
There were two primary reasons this happened:
First—Mobile (and other changing tech—including gaming, iTV and VR). I know, I know I’m not the first, or 10,000th guy to say “Mobile” will contribute to Facebook’s downfall. But there is a clue that you can see today that people aren’t pointing out. While others look at Facebook with confidence, or at least hope, that Facebook has enough money and resources to “figure mobile out”, they don’t do it. In fact there is a dark secret haunting the halls of the Facebook campus. It’s a dawning realization that the executive team is grappling with and isn’t open about—a truth that the E-suite is terrified to admit. I wonder if some of them are even willing to admit it to themselves yet.
Here is the relevant clue —the idea that would have saved Facebook’s social network, that would make it relevant through mobile and platform fragmentation— that idea —will only cost its creators about $100K. That’s how much most of these ideas cost to initiate—it rarely takes more. Give or take $50k.
That’s all the idea will cost to build and roll out enough to prove. Three to six months of dev work. Yeah it would have cost more to extend it across Facebook’s network. But that would have been easy for them. So, Facebook has gobs of $100Ks—why hasn’t it been built yet?
The dark secret that has Facebook praying the world doesn’t change too fast too soon (spoiler alert, it does), is that they don’t have the idea. They don’t know what to build.
Let me repeat that, Facebook, the company, doesn’t have the one idea that keeps their social network relevant into mobile and platform fragmentation. Because if they actually did… it’s so cheap and easy to build, you would already see it. Surely you get that, right? Even today?
Perhaps you take issue with the claim that only “one idea” is needed. Or perhaps you think they do have the vision and it’s just not so easy; it requires all those resources, big, complex development. And that today it’s being implemented by so many engineers, in so many ways across Facebook with every update. Perhaps you will say that continually sculpting Facebook, adding features, making apps, creating tools for marketers, and add-ons, will collectively add up to that idea. This is what Facebook would prefer you believe. And it’s what people hope I guess.
Well, that’s not how it works. Since the days Facebook was founded, you have seen a paradigm shift in the way you interact with technology. And that keeps changing. I can report that the idea that will dominate within this new paradigm, will not merely be a collection of incremental adjustments from the previous state.
Hell, Facebook was one simple idea once. One vision. It didn’t exist, and then it did(and it didn’t even cost $100K). It answered a specific need. And so too will this new idea. It won’t be a feature. It won’t look like Facebook. It will be a new idea.
I know, I’ve heard it, “Facebook can just buy their way into Mobile”. You’ve seen that desperation already in the Instagram land grab. It’s as if Mark said “…oh… maybe that’s it..?? …or part of it … Maybe…?”
The price was comically huge. Trust me, in the future a billion dollars for Instagram looks even dopier. How much do you think Instagram spent building the initial working version of Instagram? Well, I didn’t work on it, but like most projects of their ilk I am willing to bet it was near my magic number: $100K. I read somewhere that Instagram received $250K in funding early on and I seriously doubt they had to blow through more than half that on the initial build.
And Facebook’s desperate, bloated buy of Instagram is virtual confirmation of the point. See, you don’t buy that, and pay that much, if you have your own vision. If you have the idea.
Unfortunately, Facebook will eventually realize that Instagram wasn’t “it” either. No, the idea that will carry social networking into your next decade of platform fragmentation and mobility isn’t formally happening yet. Rather the idea that will make social connections work on increasingly diverse platforms will come about organically. Catching all the established players mostly by surprise. It will be an obvious model that few are thinking about yet.
And that leads us to the second, and most potent, reason Facebook withers—Age.
Facebook found it’s original user-ship in the mid ’00s. It started with college-age users and quickly attracted the surrounding, decidedly youthful, psychographics. This founding population was united by a common life-phase; young enough to be rebelling and searching for a place in the world they can call their own, and just barley old enough to have an impact on developing popular trends.
Well, it’s been almost a decade for you now—time flies. Those spunky, little 20+-year-old facebook founders are now 30+ year-olds and Facebook is still their domain. They made it so. And they still live their lives that way. With Facebook at its center.
But now at 30 things have started to change—now they have kids. Their kids are 6 to 12 years-old and were naturally spoon-fed Facebook. That’s just the nature of life as a child living under Mom and Dad. You do what they do. You use what they use. You go where they go. Trips to the mall with Mom to buy school clothes. Dad chaperoning sleep-overs. Messages to Grandma on Facebook. It’s a lifestyle that all children eventually rebel against as they aggressively fight to carve out their own world.
So give these kids another 6 years, the same rules will apply then. They’ll be full-blown teenagers. They started entering college. They wanted their own place. And importantly, they inherited your throne of influence for future socializing trends. Yup, the generation of Mark Zuckerburgs graduated to become the soft, doughy, conventionally uncool generation they are… or rather, were, in the future.
So project ahead with me to that future state, do you really think Facebook is going to look to these kids like the place to hang out?? Really? With Mom and Dad “liking” shit? With advertisers searching their personal timelines?
Don’t even hope for that. See, the mistake a lot of you are making is that Facebook was never a technology—for the users, Facebook has always been a place. And 6-7 years from now these kids will have long-since found their own, cooler, more relevant place—where Mom and Dad (and grandma, and her church, and a gazllion advertisers) aren’t. And it won’t be “Social Network Name #7," powered by Facebook (but Facebook tries that—so I bought their URL yesterday—I recall they paid a lot for it).
You will find it to be a confoundedly elusive place. It will be their own grass-roots network—a distributed system that exists as a rationally pure mobile, platform-agnostic, solution. A technically slippery, bit-torrent of social interaction. A decisive, cynical response to the Facebook establishment, devoid of everything Facebook stood for. At first it will completely defy and perplex the status quo. That diffused, no-there-there status makes advertisers crazy trying to break in to gain any cred in that world. But they don’t get traction. The system, by design, prohibits that. At least for a year or two. Not surprisingly some advertisers try to pretend they are groups of “kids” to weasel in, and it totally blows up in their faces. Duh. It will be a good ol’ wild west moment. As these things go. And they always do go. You’ve seen it before. And the kids win this time too.
Then a smart, 20-year-old kid figures out how to harness the diffusion in a productized solution. Simply, brilliantly, unfettered by the establishment.
And at this point, you might say—“… well… Facebook can buy that!”
Sorry, doesn’t happen. I mean, maybe it could have, but it doesn’t. Don’t forget, Yahoo tried to buy Facebook for a Billion Dollars too.
For a kid, the developer of this new solution is shrewd, and decides that selling out to Facebook would weaken what he and his buddies built—rendering it immediately inauthentic.
Seeing the power of what he holds, this kid classically disses Mark’s desperate offer. It’s all very recursive, and everyone wrote about that. My favorite headline was from Forbes: “Zucker-punched”. And anyway, Google offers him more (which is not a “buy” for Google—later post).
Look, it doesn’t matter, because at that point Facebook is already over because Facebook isn’t “where they are” anymore.
Their parents, Facebook’s founding user-base, stay with Facebook for a while and then some, those who still care how their bodies look in clothes (again Facebook’s Graph, famously showed this), will switch over presumably because they suddenly realized how uncool Facebook had become. Then even more switched because they needed to track their kids and make sure they were not getting caught up in haptic-porn (something I actually rather miss now). And that kicks off the departure domino effect (or “The Great Facebalk”, The Verge, 2021 I believe).
Later, Grandma even switches over. But some of her friends are still so old-timey that she’ll keep her Facebook account so she can share cat pictures with them. And of course, she won’t want to miss the high-school reunions.
So that is Facebook’s destiny. And you know, I am from the future. So I know.
Oh one last thing, in Petaluma there’s a 14 year-old kid I bumped into the other day—quite intentionally. He’s cool. He’s hungry. When he turns 20, I plan on investing exactly $100K in some crazy idea he’ll have. I have a pretty good feeling about it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
A California native, Joel Hladecek's experience creating interactive experiences predates the personal computer. Creative Director of virtual reality theme park rides, and numerous Internet firsts and conventions, Joel currently serves as the global creative head of EF Education in London. He also has this problem of randomly popping around in time. He blogs at The Interactivist.
Photo by gilderic/Flickr