With all that pomp, who needs circumstance?
By now you know that Facebook smashed earnings expectations last week, and that a great many cheers went up among its stakeholders. After getting caught flat-footed on mobile, they finally got it right, successfully leveraging the mobile platform and cashing in on targeted ads. Yet where it concerns innovations that affect actual human beings, Facebook is pushing rope.
There was a time when you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a drastic Facebook overhaul that had users ready to roast Mark Zuckerberg in effigy. Of late, however, the brightest of the social media stars has exhibited a shrinking impotence when it comes to the kind of bold innovations that once earned our ire.
When Facebook has fired the guns of “Big Dev” lately, it has mainly been for the benefit of advertisers, with users benefiting only tangentially. Facebook has proven that it can effectively monetize mobile, and this is due in no small part to the fact that at every turn, dev has served rev (enue). Last Wednesday’s earnings report was a direct result. But while improvements have padded Facebook’s top-line earnings, for users, they’ve packed about as much of a punch as the Joker’s flag gun. “BANG!”
The world’s largest social network is once again the willing bride of Wall Street, but while raking in targeted ad revenue tickles shareholders, it does nothing to excite the user base or halt desertion by younger users. Rather, the company’s tremendous quarterly performance could lull the giant more deeply into its slumber. False complacency will render it incapable of the daring development required to stay on top of the social media mountain. Facebook needs to stop drinking the blue Kool-aid and pause for the cause of sober reflection.
Suggested Posts and the Uncanny Valley
Suggested Posts were shoehorned into News Feed as part of the otherwise unremarkable March 2013 update. It was an attempt to slake advertiser’s vampiric thirst for more “content-rich” ads (read: bigger, leveraging pics and video, but looking like posts from your Facebook friends), and it worked. And while Suggested Posts have been a boon to earnings, they risk alienating users in unexpected ways. Facebook butters its bread by extolling the efficacy of its data-culling algorithms, and waxes poetic about how its targeted advertisements are better for me than banner ads for Mountain Dew, yet the best it can do is nag me to sign up for Lyft and serve me ads for male grooming products – as though I need yet another reminder that I’m unemployed, or that god-like abs but a Stegosaurus-plating of bacne is a situation that affects us all.
Facebook’s unprecedented access to our personal information makes poorly targeted ads seem all the more ridiculous, but the more well-targeted the ad, the more likely we are to get that creeping sensation that Facebook is, well, creeping. Better targeting is not the issue. Our aversion to Suggested Posts runs far deeper. Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not perfectly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. - Wiki
That’s why every time you see targeted ads in your News Feed, you feel as though you’ve been had. Suggested Posts are the sinister spawn of the Uncanny Valley because they parade as something they most certainly are not – organic content – and so they make banner ads look noble by comparison, drumming up the same instinctive alarm that one feels upon realizing that a friendly stranger is trolling for Amway franchisees. Pauly Shore and Syd the Kid might as well show up, chanting, “You got Got! You got Got!”
Suggested Posts pose an insidious problem for Facebook, and one that it doesn’t even know it has. Where the company believes it has unearthed a rich new vein of revenue, users find a fly in the ointment. The company risks dependency on something that contains the seeds of its undoing, as more invasive ads give users additional impetus to abandon Facebook for newer services that have yet to evolve to the monetization stage.
Facebook’s Latent Identity Crisis
Amidst the bleating over Facebook losing its cachet with younger users, there’s a question that no one is asking: how much should Facebook care? More to the point: will Facebook be the defining social network of a generation, or of all generations? The fate of the company will wax or wane on its response.
Among teens who admit to spending less time on Facebook, they report the typical reasons: they’re bored with it, there are too many ads, and their parents are on Facebook. Therein lies there’s the rub – parental presence. If Facebook intends to remain the social network of the moment, indefinitely, this single issue poses the greatest threat to its long-term success, albeit not for the reason you would think. It’s not that Facebook is becoming less cool because your mom is on Facebook; Facebook is becoming less cool because you are the mom on Facebook.
The nature of the issue – namely, demographics – dictates that this problem will only be exacerbated with the passage of time. Tomorrow’s teens will opt against Facebook the same as yesterday’s teen’s opted against joining their mother’s bowling league. At least the bowling alley was never decked out with photos of them with their umbilical cord still attached. This will be an issue for tomorrow’s teens, because Facebook features exactly that.
Facebook is a brand, just like Coca-Cola. But whereas Coca-Cola can refresh itself every couple of years with a new marketing campaign, Facebook is a warehouse of potentially embarrassing digital artifacts that also doubles as a sandbox where mom and dad can see all.
In roughly five years, the children of Facebook’s first adopters will be of age to join the ubiquitous social network. And while playing to the taste of Tweens is holy writ when it comes to Hollywood launching tent-pole film franchises, in the realm of social media, this conventional wisdom is ill-applied as a strategy, and worse as a tactic. There is a generational specificity to each social networking service that the social media industry as a whole has yet to fully comprehend.
Facebook is inextricably linked to the Millennial generation; those persons the rough age of a millennial’s younger siblings and parents form the respective book-ends of a bell curve, the snapshot of which constitutes the Core Facebook Generation. Continually reaching beyond this core group for more users in attempts to re-position Facebook as the “it” social network for each successive generation is a fool’s errand.
If the company acknowledges the relative fixity of the identity of its user base, it can turn its lament over the loss of younger users into an opportunity for future growth, much in the same way that the financial planning industry has been buoyed by Baby Boomers eyeing retirement. Facebook has the chance to enter into a long-term and evolving relationship with its core demographics, devising new revenue opportunities over time as the needs and tastes of existing users mature. In this way, it could position itself as the gold standard of social networks. The timeless is often characterized by the chief aim to be the best, not necessarily the hottest or trendiest. Facebook could serve as the social network that everyone eventually matures into.
It is irrational exuberance for Facebook to think it will be the social network of every generation. Until the company acknowledges this truth, and the ramifications of its strong ties to the millennials (and their adjoining adopters), it will see diminishing returns as it chases ever-younger users. Worse, it will continue to think that this phenomenon in itself is the problem.
Facebooks Risks Becoming the Next Yahoo
Spare me the protests about Yahoo’s stock being on a run, and how Yahoo is “cool again” after its $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr.
Quite apart from stock performance, the analogy surrounds the circumstances under which the leader in a given space sees its hegemony slowly deflate as a result of stagnation and uninspired design. And buying Tumblr makes Yahoo about as cool as your dad in skinny jeans (when he valets his Mazda Miata at the bar (on college night)).
In contrast to its glorious beginnings as a “web” “portal,” Yahoo is now a bloated amalgam, an Akira monster of poorly defined functionality. What exactly does Yahoo do? It does a lot of things, but none of them particularly well. Yahoo’s strategy is to speckle the wall with services and hope that some stick, and profitably, with little apparent regard for how anything looks or feels. Yahoo’s landing page should be shot before it can reproduce.
While it’s still a stretch to call Facebook ugly, it has long since ceased to be beautiful, and it shares this trait with Yahoo. Both feature tired interfaces, and competing services have iterated well beyond both in terms of aesthetics, making each look dated by comparison. Just like Yahoo, Facebook competes across numerous categories, but never rates best in show. It offers instant messaging, photo-sharing, and status updates, yet users still opt for WhatsApp (or Snapchat), Instagram (or Tumblr), and Twitter. Each of these stand-alone services outperforms Facebook in their chosen arena, and each looks better while doing it.
It wasn’t always this way. It was only four years ago that Facebook danced over the rotting corpses of Myspace and Friendster, ascending to the heights of social media. But that was in a primordial age of the Internet, an antebellum, ugly Internet. MySpace was comically ugly, to say nothing of the overcrowded UI’s of other leaders of the day, Amazon and eBay. At the height of its popularity, the MySpace interface looked like a crime scene photo of a disemboweled piñata. Every login was like watching an episode of Battling Seizure Robots.
Facebook’s relatively spartan aesthetic was once beautiful in its simplicity – but that ship has sailed. Just as Yahoo appeared content to sit out the mobile movement, Facebook seems immune to the “Pinterestization” of the Web, and from the beautiful design movement at-large. One can’t help but wonder, where is Facebook’s Jony Ive?
Facebook risks becoming the Yahoo of its generation – an ambiguously purposed woolly mammoth of market capitalization; a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none, with a bland UI and questionable long-term relevance.
Facebook’s Instagram Problem
The $1 billion purchase of Instagram seems like a coup in retrospect because of the massive popularity and growth of the photo-sharing service, but it also speaks to Facebook’s underlying weakness. The most important developments no longer happen in-house, they are acquired. Acquisitions are surely part-and-parcel of the tech industry, but Facebook should be leading from the front, setting trends more often and playing catch-up less.
Sorting out how these two services fit together is a more acute problem. Although Instagram is certainly the crown jewel of Facebook’s acquisitions, it remains unclear where the photo-sharing app fits as a piece in the Facebook puzzle. Instagram’s one-at-a-time upload interface is wholly antithetical to Facebook’s binge-and-post approach. Where is the middle ground? Facebook thinks it stepped in a big bucket of win with Instagram, but it is taunted by the Cobra Commander of inevitability: “You may have won the battle, but I will win the war!”
By bringing Instagram fully into the fold, Facebook risks snuffing out the very spirit of Instagram that makes it Instagram; but if it doesn’t, then what was the point of the acquisition in the first place, especially from the smaller company’s perspective? For Facebook, the purchase smacks of exactly the kind of tail-chasing it should avoid in the future, trying to always be – or to acquire – the next big thing. If it was purely a financial play, as seems to be case (see: big brother coach little brother on monetization), then Facebook is just one two underperforming quarters away from hearing shareholders howl for an Instagram stock spinoff.
The most legitimate ground from which to defend the Instagram purchase is as a stratagem to keep it away from competitors like Twitter. If this was not the case, then it was a puzzling acquisition. Where Facebook’s aesthetic limitations shout, “Iterate or die!” the Instagram issue leaves us with, “Integrate, or, why?”
How Foot-in-mouth Thwarts Facebook Freemium
In the run-up to Facebook’s 2012 initial public offering, a rumor surfaced that it would begin charging a monthly subscription fee. Predictably, hundreds of millions of people found nothing better to do that day than to completely lose their shit. The company was prompted to quash the rumor, and issued a statement that Facebook was “free and always will be.” Predictably, we all missed the point.
Facebook isn’t free. Even though there’s no out of pocket expense to use the service, every time you see an ad or Suggested Post, there’s money changing hands. It just happens to not be yours. There’s nothing underhanded in this of course. It costs money to spin the wheel, and Facebook is a business. But by going out of its way to repeatedly assure over 1 billion users that the site will always be free, the company has painted itself into a corner on a viable idea whose time has come: Facebook Freemium.
Most of us are familiar with services that start as freeware, then later implement a two-pronged revenue strategy of placing ads in the free version but offering an ad-free version for a fee. Music services Spotify and Pandora are examples, and the latter consistently ranks among the Top Grossing apps in the iOS App Store. While music and social aren’t a perfect parallel, the point remains that people will pay for a service that they like if they can opt out of advertisements. Note the subtext here: apps are good, ads are bad.
Yet in spite of the those loud assurances that Facebook would never pass the hat, the company already owns a patent that would pave the way for an ad-free version, according to the MIT Technology Review. As welcome of an idea as this might be to users whose patience has worn thin with Suggested Posts, Facebook Freemium would face at least three substantial hurdles.
The freemium model would then immediately beg the question of what it means for ads. The subtext of the freemium model, and Facebook’s adoption of it, would be a tacit admission of what all of us outside the Facebook C-suite and the advertising industry already know deep down in our very bones: advertisements are misleading, they suck, and we hate them. Facebook Freemium would be incongruous to what users have been spoon-fed ad nauseam about how targeted advertisements provide an enriched user experience (always laughable, since we all know that the ones being enriched are Facebook and digital ad networks).
Facebook Freemium would lastly prompt the question of whether or not Facebook is worth a monthly fee. In a hypothetical world where Facebook was a true, one-stop social media -shop, and its UI wasn’t the dusty relic of a bygone era, I would gladly pay per month for an ad-free version. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in such a world, because there isn’t a single service that Facebook offers that isn’t offered more competently by another more specialized app, and one that likely has far less intrusive advertisements. Facebook doesn’t yet pass muster as a value proposition – it asks too much, but gives too little.
The uphill battle facing freemium is a perfect illustration of the threat posed to the company as a whole when the guns of “Big Dev” fall silent for users. Freemium is a compelling idea, but a long-neglected user base could reasonably decide that Facebook is no longer worth the price of admission.
A Rumor of a Different Kind
In light of these dreary realities that bubble below the surface of record revenues, Facebook users should be thrilled at the rumor that there’s a drastic redesign in the oven, one that would effectively out-Flipboard Flipboard, the beautifully designed social media aggregator. The news is one part Bat signal over Gotham, one part smoke plume rising from the stacks of Mr. Wonka’s long-dormant factory.
Instead of simply serving as a separate Facebook offering, such a drastic overhaul should supplant the News Feed entirely. This bold move would strike at the heart of the specters of doubt raised by Facebook’s recent negligence of user experience. Of course, user reactions would be characteristically swift, vitriolic, and irrational, but Facebook should see these as welcome signs, indicators that it is once again leading instead of chasing.
Just as The Wall was forced to give way to Timeline, so too must News Feed evolve. The appearance of the main landing page has stagnated long enough – please don’t mention that dreadful third column on the desktop version, my brain tumors simply won’t abide it – and a sorely needed upgrade would benefit both Facebook and its users in several important ways.
The redesign would immediately temper user revulsion to Suggested Posts by creating a more hospitable landscape from which Facebook can peddle such dreck. Suggested Posts would then be no more annoying than magazine advertisements. Although the move wouldn’t address the company’s identity crisis directly, it certainly would reassert an identity. It would allow Facebook to outflank social media aggregators, while also making concrete Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-mentioned desire for Facebook to become the newspaper of record for the Internet age.
Facebook’s new, Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat would definitely shore up the aesthetic deficiencies it is beginning to share with cretaceous relics like Yahoo. And while it wouldn’t necessarily solve the Instagram problem, the redesign would create a new playing field on which to do so, and integration of Instagram’s sublime design might suddenly prove less unwieldy. Finally, the new News Feed would show that the company is still willing to flex its muscles to improve user experience, showing the kind of commitment to innovation necessary to justify the potential costs of a freemium model.
Diagnosing Facebook’s ills is a joyless task for me. At 30 years old, the Facebook story is part of my story. When Mark Zuckerberg wins, I feel like a less attractive, but infinitely more intelligent, Ivy League version of me wins. It’s too easy to say that an IPO kills the social media star, but many of Facebook’s woes can be traced to that seminal moment. It admitted to being caught flat-footed on mobile. It delayed the introduction of hashtags until long after it mattered. It beat its chest at the introduction of Graph Search while we all scratched our heads (what’s it for, again?), and has generally just looked increasingly out of touch with its user base. These aren’t the understandable errors of a hungry innovator or the deft feints of a wily veteran. They’re the bungling missteps of a contented winner.
Admittedly, the rumor of redesign is still pretty thin, but Facebook fans are left to grasp at thin hopes such as these. Mark Zuckerberg must force the issue and take the bold steps that are needed to turn an oil tanker around in a puddle. If such drastic measures are not taken, then the slow bleed of users abandoning Facebook will become a mass exodus. Today’s trickle will be tomorrows torrent.
So it goes. After all, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m just a friend that stopped by to say “hi.”