Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Facebook Flatlining? My Prognostications for the Social Networking Behemoth

It might still be the world’s second-most-popular website with 700,000,000 unique monthly visitors – behind Google’s 900,000,000. But, as history has taught us, it’s usually when you’re flirting with the top that the bottom drops out.

And when it comes to Facebook’s dominance, the digital Visigoths are amassing on the web’s virtual borders.

Who are these digital invaders? An expanding list of mobile messaging apps like Kik, GeeVee and WhatsApp, among others, that are growing increasingly popular with tweens and Millennials. Kik, for instance, launched in 2010, now boasts 40 million users, GeeVee has quietly amassed several million users since 2011 while WhatsApp recently became Canada’s top paid downloaded iPhone app. Once Facebook’s most coveted demographic, the 15-25 age group is starting to bypass the originally built-for-desktop/laptop site, calling the website decidedly un-cool. Does Facebook think that its “F-phone” might stop the bleeding?

Even in our age of instant communication, it’s amazing how fast the conversation has shifted. Just last spring media outlets were writing about the time when Facebook would reach the billion-member mark. The early call was for last August. Instead the feat was achieved in October. Not bad for a nine-year-old company.

Fast-forward six months and now a Google news search returns dozens of articles hinting at what I think will be inevitable, the flat-lining of Facebook. Even with an encouraging Q4 earnings – revenue was up 40% from a year ago – the stock is down 1.4% and profit margins have narrowed sharply as spending increases. To me, this sounds like an engine being pushed to its limits – running hard and fast until breakdown. In other words, Facebook’s present business model is not sustainable.

As with many other great empires, Rome’s final downfall might have come from without – the real Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, conquered it in 410 AD – but the beginning of its end came from within. Facebook has become too big and its autocratic intrusion on our privacy, culminating in a $15 billion class action lawsuit, bears ironic resemblance to any super state’s trampling of peoples’ rights.

Another shortcoming: the digital soapbox that Facebook became, with people collecting fake friends like poker chips, may finally be coming to an end. Maybe we’ve all just moved on and the cultural pendulum is swinging back to a desire for smaller groups of actual friends. You know, people you might actually meet in person and actually know, not just “like.” Apps like Kik, GeeVee and WhatsApp are also great for young users as they avoid cell phone data network charges and it’s a little harder for hovering “helicopter parents” to join social messaging apps. And forget about prospective employers snooping around too.

That said, it’s not as if Facebook is going to unfriend itself anytime soon. A recent Reuters article is right to point out that the many Millennials turning to this new breed of mobile messaging apps haven’t abandoned Facebook – yet. But the true canary in the coal mine will be tracking how their usage patterns change in the coming months and years. And you can be sure Facebook is well equipped with its prodigious metrics-gathering ability to learn its fate long before it’s sealed.

Even then, though, the great Facebook empire may still fall, as all empires do.

Do you think Facebook is flatlining? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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