I don’t use the phrase “Facebook revolution” lightly. It sounds like the kind of promotional B.S. that Mark Zuckerberg’s PR department would use. But facts, media coverage and anecdotal evidence back it up: the last six months have seen Facebook absolutely explode in popularity here in Canada.
In a post a couple of weeks ago, the official Facebook blog laid out the damage in numbers. Since the start of the year, the presence of Canada relative to the rest of Facebook has doubled. There are 2 million Canadian users on Facebook, 10 per cent of total Facebook population. The Toronto network is actually the largest network on Facebook, with well over 500,000 users. The blog posted this fancy chart that claims to indicate “weekly shares of total users by country of affiliation for non-U.S. users.” I have no idea what that means, but look how high the red line is!
Then there’s the news articles: do a Google News search for Facebook and you’ll find articles in all the papers of record, from the Toronto Star to the Globe and Mail to the National Post. There’s been articles about students being suspended for badmouthing their teachers on Facebook, and about government employees being denied access while they’re at work, and about some enterprising fool who got a Bruce Frisko tattoo after 25,000 people joined his Facebook group. Whatever the content, Facebook is a hot story.
But it’s the anecdotal evidence that is most telling, as Facebook has been able to avoid the ageist stigma that has kept MySpace as a predominantly youth-based service. By last summer, pretty much everybody doing an undergraduate degree in Canada was on Facebook, but the service’s rise in mainstream popularity only came after it opened up access to anyone with an e-mail account (previously, students needed a university e-mail address). What’s happened over the winter and spring months is a surge of 30 and 40 somethings signing up for accounts, and they’re the reason why this Facebook revolution is taking place.
So why Canada? The Facebook folks don’t offer any answers, but I’ve got a few theories of my own. The biggest competitive reason is that unlike in the States, MySpace never really caught on in Canada. While it’s still the top social networking site in the U.S. (65 million viewers to Facebook’s 18 million in April), MySpace remained a niche product here in Canada, meaning that Facebook’s far superior service (for a multitude of reasons) had little competition when it launched north of the border. But if we want a sociological reason why Facebook has become the Internet story of 2007 in Canada, perhaps it has something to do with our country’s geographic and cultural makeup. The beauty of Facebook is that that it’s not really used to make new relationships but to leverage existing ones. Everyone can see the value of a service to keep track of people, but the advantages of Facebook are much higher in a geographically vast country with a highly mobile population.
But is it all just a fad? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? As companies and organizations are coming to realize the potential of Facebook to bring people together or share information, the elephant in the room is the uncertain longevity of the service. How should we think of Facebook: as the new Windows about to become the uncontested default service available, or as the new ICQ just waiting for a better product to pull the rug out from under it?
If my opinion means anything (it doesn’t), I think it might be something closer to the former, especially here in Canada where its reign over all other social media is notable. In fact, perhaps the best way to think of Facebook is as a social media aggregator. After all, Facebook’s core services offer the functionality of a variety other social media outlets: you’ve got the photo sharing of Flickr, the status updating of Twitter, the friend collecting of MySpace and more, all in one place (and all with an intuitive and clean interface, which as I’ve discussed before is probably the most important part of the success of any product or service).
Now don’t worry, I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid completely just yet. In my view, there are three big challenges confronting Facebook on its path to Internet domination – some it’s staring down right now, others a year or two down the road. These challenges are far from minor, but in each of them there’s enormous opportunity. My view is that how Facebook survives and grows with each of them will make or break the service. If it emerges from all three a stronger, better product, then frankly there’s no stopping it.
What’s the first rule of cool for young people? If your mom thinks it’s cool, it’s probably not.
Facebook was designed as a service for university students, and each time that it has expanded beyond that audience it’s taken some flack from that core group. Eventually, however, those dissenting voices subside as the service continues to grow and conquer. The problem Facebook confronts now, though, is that the service has expanded so far beyond a young userbase that it threatens to alienate those very people that it started with.
A lingering question hanging in the air, unanswered, is how much of Facebook’s appeal among young people was the fact that its population skewed younger. The whole point of our teenage/post-teenage years is the quest for identity, and if Facebook is populated by 30 and 40 somethings, will teenagers and university students go elsewhere online in that quest? The threat of going for a mass audience is losing your opinion leaders at your core, and Facebook has to tread very carefully in the next year or two lest it lose them along the way.
Everything in its right place
The actual launch of the Facebook Platform two weeks ago was done with very little fanfare. There wasn’t even a full, official blog post about it until a week after it was up and running. Like all good things viral, the folks at Facebook just sat back and let the word get around all on its own.
In case I’m talking over your head, the Facebook Platform basically means that Facebook now allows outside companies or organizations to create their own applications as widgets (sections) that users can implement into their profile. Instead of just the basics (like photos, friends, the wall, work/education, etc.), now the sections of your profile are only limited by the imaginations of the thousands of developers who, no doubt, are working on their own widgets. Me, I’ve only incorporated the Last.fm one thus far, but the possibilities are endless.
While Facebook has always co-opted other social media (as I said earlier), this is something else: it transforms the service into a social media hub, through which anyone and everyone can create their own application. Already, social media outlets like Last.fm and Twitter have created Facebook applications, which begs the question: if all of this stuff can be accessed through Facebook, why go anywhere else?
Why is this a challenge, you might ask? Because it threatens one of the most enticing features of Facebook – its clean and simple design and interface. Unlike hideously-ugly MySpace, Facebook profiles were always organized, simple and coherent, allowing just enough customization (with avatars) to make people content but not opening up the floodgates. That sense of unity is quickly fleeting, as everyone’s profile will be filled with a variety of different (and sometimes hideous-looking) applications. Will Facebook become as unwieldy and unattractive as its competitors?
Billion dollar babies
The buyout is coming. I’m not 100 per cent sure of that statement, but it only makes sense. I think that Mark Zuckerberg has done a very noble and smart thing by holding onto his cards for the time being – it’s allowed him and his team to mould the service as they see fit, unbeholden to a parent company. But in the media world, money eventually talks and I would be very surprised if in 2-3 years (hell, maybe sooner) Facebook was not owned by some external company, especially with the rumours flying around that Zuckerberg has been offered YouTube levels of cash (Yahoo! is the most common name bandied about as a buyer).
Never mind the all-too-obvious cries of “sellout” – the threat comes with a buyout isn’t from knee-jerk reactions but long-term changes to the product. When someone else calls the shots the bottom line gets sharper, the top-down influence looms large and the grass-roots foundation of a company gets hazy. Social media lives or dies on its audience (see the whole Digg fiasco last month), and Facebook distances itself from that audience at its own peril. It may mean the difference between the future and a flash in the pan.