With each passing year, Facebook struggles to keep the attention of the future generation. Studies show that the number of teens active on Facebook has declined as much as 16% in Q3 of 2013. This foreshadows the inevitable exodus to the next generation of social networks. I want to talk about why this is happening, and why this is important in the history of social technology.
All social movements dissipate
Facebook’s historical timeline (no pun intended) is very similar to the Four Stages of Social Movements:
Emergence - The early stages of a movement where it begins to gain momentum and generate chatter. Facebook in 2005.
Coalescence - When a movement reaches critical mass and is a force to be reckoned with. Around 2009 when Facebook surpassed MySpace.
Bureaucratization - When a movement becomes formalized. Leading up to an IPO, Facebook becomes a “real company” and adopts corporate structure and employs thousands.
Decline - When a movement dissipates. Facebook is burrowed deep into our culture and is established. Very much like the wind down of a successful social movement, “their goals or ideologies are adopted by the mainstream and there is no longer any need for a movement.”
What we’re seeing is a fundamental shift in the perception of what Facebook means to society. It has become institutionalized. It’s become the town square of the world. But that’s not where the kids hang out.
Why people are leaving
Teens likely see Facebook the same way the Facebook generation sees LinkedIn – like a utilitarian place to manage connections.
Now that social networking has become universal, we’ve become increasingly sensitive to what we share on Facebook. Speaking on a stage in front of a mixed audience of family, friends, and acquaintances makes it hard for most of us to be our genuine and authentic selves. As a result, we tend to see people sharing only their proudest moments in an attempt to portray their best selves. We filter too much, and with that, we lose real human connection.
As your Facebook network becomes saturated, it can feel very public. It puts the focus on managing your image, rather than truly bonding with people. Young startups like Snapchat are providing shelter from the institution of Facebook by serving as a place where you can express yourself comfortably. A place where you don’t feel like your every move is being watched.
What teenager wants to hang out in the same place as their parents?
Facebook will never be cool again. But it’s rich, so it can buy cool. Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram was their first big move to strengthen their position with the youth of this country. Facebook understands that in order to stay relevant, it needs to win mindshare within the right demographics, even if it’s not immediately tied to the Facebook brand. This is the reason Facebook offered Snapchat $3 billion, and the same reason Evan Spiegel turned it down. He sees the writing on the wall.
Facebook is a public company now, which means it has to operate like a business. Their decisions will be in favor of maximizing shareholder value in order to succeed as a publicly traded company. Thus far, their monetization strategies have been contradictory to the essence of a social network by infringing on the virtue of social interaction. The passion is no longer about how can we connect the world, but how can we get people to spend money. If you can’t hang out with your friends without being bombarded by promotions, you’re going to go somewhere else that’s free, easy, and trendy.
Facebook’s platform strategy may be one of their best bets. Many websites implement Facebook login, giving Facebook a stranglehold on a major piece of infrastructure of the modern web. I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook doubled down on their platform strategy. Unfortunately, a long-term platform strategy is at risk if they fail to convert the next generation into users.
This is just the beginning. I believe that an imminent proliferation of social products will continue to emerge and chip away at the Facebook empire as it retires into its structural role on the Internet, watching the kids play.
Why this is important
We can learn a lot from observing this transition of power. It goes to show that social products are just as mortal as the people who use them. They grow old and long for the youth they once had. They become set in their ways and burdened by their legacy. They are subject to the ebb and flow of cultural evolution and the fickleness of popular opinion.
What was cool in the 70s wasn’t cool in the 80s. What became cool in the 80s was no longer cool in the 90s. Social networks are susceptible to the same shift in trends and fashion that we’ve witnessed in society before our social lives extended into the digital world. This is why social networks, like Google+ (where I worked for one year), are struggling even more than Facebook to get a foothold in the future of social networking. They are betting on last year’s fashion – they’re fighting Facebook for the last available room on the Titanic when they should be looking at all of the other ships leaving the marina.
It wasn’t too long ago that we thought nothing could stop Facebook. That era has come to an end. There will always be room for new and exciting ways to share and connect with the people that matter in your life.
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