Facebook: Part of the Problem or the Solution?

By Tuesday, May 22, 2012 Lizard Logic No Comments

Let’s talk about Facebook.  It seems like not a day goes by lately without having a conversation that, at some point, references the social networking titan.  But is Facebook really a titan, an impenetrable force that will shape the lives of generations to come, or is it a paper tiger—an Internet bubble heading for a burst of epic proportions, a fall from grace to rival Tiger Woods (an Applebee’s server, Tiger?… really, man?)

I’m not exactly a techie.  My wife isn’t standing over my shoulder as I write this, but if she was, she would be nodding her head in vigorous agreement.  I don’t have the chops to dish on the subtle details of Facebook’s construction, basic interface, usability, or any stuff like that.  But I don’t think that’s necessary for the discussion I have in mind here.

Let me cut to the chase:  I have my suspicions that Facebook is going to have a limited shelf life.  The obvious thing would be to compare it to Myspace, which was once every bit as promising a social hub as Facebook.  According to the book The Accidental Billionaires (from which the movie The Social Network was closely based), Myspace might have been Facebook, had it not been for crucial mistakes the company made at various points.  That’s not how it worked out, of course, and many would argue that Myspace would never have attained the critical mass of Facebook, because the latter is more able to meet the needs of the general public.  For various reasons, Myspace became marginalized to the point that it is now a fringe destination, largely occupied by bands and people looking to hook up with the opposite sex.  Facebook has avoided such pigeonholing, of course, a fact evidenced by the zillion Facebook accounts currently in existence.

I understand why Facebook has been so phenomenally successful.  I think we all do.  It has proven it has the power to transcend not only individual lives, or at least the way individuals communicate, but also society itself.  But here’s the thing:  just because Mark Zuckerberg and his crew tapped into something new, synthesizing ideas that were already in existence to create something powerful and previously unavailable, does that mean Facebook will always have an unchallenged monopoly on the idea of Internet-based social networking?  Is Facebook not at risk, like any and every other entity of its nature, of being ultimately replaced by something newer and “sexier?”  If a major scandal was to occur at Facebook, in which the credibility of the company was suddenly called into question, would that not have a serious impact on their current, global stranglehold on the social networking masses?  This could be a scandal involving high-ranking members of the company (perhaps along the lines of the trouble that befell the Murdoch clan recently), or even more destructive could be a major controversy involving privacy issues.  Let’s face it, this is Facebook’s Achilles heel:  there is a lot of gray area regarding how Facebook infringes (or does not, depending on your take) on people’s privacy; and anywhere there is gray area, there is the potential for problems, in both a legal and moral sense.  My understanding is that many teachers and people who otherwise work with minors are highly encouraged by their employers (or unions) to NOT have a Facebook account, at least not one to which their name and personal identity are attached.  The reasons for this are fairly obvious.

I see the merit in Facebook.  I have an account, and I appreciate the convenience it affords me in keeping in touch with people, or in getting out the word about something I’m doing at a given moment.  I’m not a FB hater, like some people.  But what Facebook sells, or at least offers, doesn’t strike me as a commodity the company will be able to control forever.  Apple survived, and ultimately dominated, in no small part thanks to the genius of Steve Jobs.  Yeah, yeah, everyone throws around the word “genius” to the point that it loses its value—but based on what I’ve read and otherwise gleaned about the Silicon Valley visionary, Jobs had an amazing sense of creativity, prescience (ability to predict the future), and sheer chutzpah.  Now that he’s gone, one can only wonder if Apple, long-term, will remain on the cutting edge of cell phones, computers, music, and every other aspect of technology they have affected.  They might be able to ride Jobs’ coattails for a while, but ultimately, someone will have to assume his role, not in a managerial sense but in a creative, innovative sense, or Apple will lose its standing as the world’s leader in their given field.

In order to stay on top, Facebook will have to reinvent itself from time to time, in a way that is still satisfying to its customers.  People always want something new.  Also, people have a tendency to get tired of something that has been directly in their face for a long time.  Let’s face it… pun intended… Facebook, like it or dislike it, is up in all of our faces.  There is no escaping it; and anything to which there is no escape, in my estimation, is a thing which people will eventually try to escape.  Because something as ubiquitous, as wide-reaching as Facebook, while it might currently be thought of as cool and progressive, is going to eventually be lumped in as part of the Establishment.  The masses, at some point, are going to demand an upheaval of the status quo.

What will stop some savvy group of individuals/company from creating something that, while in the same vein as FB, is perceived as more cutting edge, attractive and cool?  Has Facebook achieved such critical mass that it is invincible, immune to any and all challenges from competitors for the massive global social networking community that is growing every day?  I don’t buy it.  I say no.  I don’t see what’s so unique about Facebook.  Yes, they got their first, but why should I turn to them for my social networking needs for the rest of my life?  Why should you?

Here’s another thought:  Many of us paid at least passing attention to the Facebook IPO (initial public offering) last week, and many of us were in turn surprised that the stock didn’t have a more impressive beginning.  I heard one pundit on TV say that the reason for the less-than-spectacular opening was due to concerns in the financial community about the Facebook’s longterm viability as a profit-making company.  This makes perfect sense to me.  What exactly is the product?  It’s an interface, and a brilliant one, yes.  But is it anything more than a mere website, really?  Could any website ever be viewed as a concrete commodity?  Microsoft makes operating systems, Oracle (yes, a brief shout-out for my wife’s company!) creates software… Facebook is an idea that pretty much everyone has embraced, but is it a product?

If Facebook’s only way to ever make profit is through advertising sales, is that not a precarious foundation upon which to build what is supposedly a multi-billion dollar corporation?  And here’s another thing:  Facebook will never be able to charge a subscription fee to its users.  The whole culture Facebook has supposedly created is hinged on its accessibility to all people around the world, for FREE.  The minute Facebook tries to charge people money for anything is the minute you will see a mass migration away from all things Facebook.  In fashioning its product as something every human being has an inalienable right to access, utilize, leverage, consume, or otherwise take advantage of, has Facebook not put itself behind the eight ball, at least as a money-making enterprise/corporation with a major upside in terms of long-term profitability?   In other words, by capitalizing on and reinforcing the Internet’s maverick/countercultural spirit and general vibe (at least in its current, still-evolving stage), which stresses abundant, cost-free availability of information and intellectual property, is Facebook, which is going to have to show its teeth in terms of being a money-maker, now that it’s a publicly traded company, going to fall prey to the old Biblical adage, live by the sword, die by the sword?

I’ll say it again.  I’m not a particularly savvy Internet guy.  I’m writing this and asking these questions as a humble layperson, someone who has only the knowledge I have accrued by being a Facebook user myself.  Also, let me say that I’m not writing this with any kind of anti-FB agenda.  I would imagine Mark Zuckerberg and his crew encourage such open discourse, and if were so inclined, would be able to articulately counter many of the points I’m making here.  Any takers, Facebook staff and loyalists/staunch defenders?

Perhaps I’m mistaken.  Perhaps Facebook will be able to charge for various services.  Maybe it won’t be their basic service–which allows you to create a profile/homepage, and connect with people all over the world—but other services, ones that perhaps you are currently getting from other sources.  For example, what if Facebook somehow is able to start getting their paws on other profitable niches, such as digital music, movies, etc?  In other words, what if Facebook decides to give Netflix a run for their money, incorporating video rental services within the overall FB package?  I know, I’m reaching, and maybe this sounds ridiculous, but I just don’t see how Facebook can survive in the long run, unless they start dabbling in other markets.  What they sell, ironically is free.  Their viability is solely quantifiable in terms of their attractiveness to advertisers… at least in the company’s current incarnation.  Unless I am mistaken…

Here’s another question:  Why is Facebook a company-for-profit in the first place?  Why doesn’t Mark Zuckerberg just run the company as a non-profit, with humanity’s over-arching needs and concerns as its primary motivation?  (Other than the little fact that it has made him and some of his colleagues into billionaires).  If the mission is to create a new paradigm in human communication, which many would argue Facebook is indeed doing, is a project of that magnitude something that should be dictated by a company that is for-profit?

Like many aspects of the Internet, Facebook seems like an experiment—an idea that is still in progress, which is developing and evolving on a daily basis.  It’s like medical research; we all agree that it’s a good thing, a necessary thing, but certain pursuits within the overall movement carry moral and ethical ambiguity, uncertainties, concerns, red flags…

In an age when one of our primary concerns is an ever-increasing diminishment of our privacy (Big Brother is watching), a fact which has been brought about by new technology, as well as the culture of post-9/11 fear which led to such things as the Patriot Act, is Facebook part of the problem or part of the solution?  This is a fair question, when we’re talking about a website that essentially serves as a inter-connective hub breaking down the barriers between all people (at least all those who choose to participate, and that is most of us).

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