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.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cash for Quiet? What an Airline April Fools’ Joke Can Teach Us All

The late comedian George Carlin often argued that anything could be funny. All jokes are mostly true retellings of events or observations. The humor comes with exaggeration. “Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion,” he said. That contrast helps establish how “valid” the rest of the joke’s commentary actually is.

If that logic holds true, then WestJet’s April Fools’ joke struck the perfect note. A video featuring Richard Bartrem, the Canadian low cost carrier’s vice president of communications, offers a new airline perk: “Furry Family” – where all animals of cabin-safe size are welcome aboard (assuming they can use the lavatory).

“Today we’re announcing the easing of restrictions on pets in the cabin,” Bartrem says with a straight face. “We recognize that a growing number of our guests want to travel with their extended family and we’re proud to be the first airline to offer this type of service.”

And where will the two and four-legged creatures sit, crouch or hide? (Hint: not in their carriers)

Pretty much anywhere else, including the seat next to you, in storage bins or scurrying under your feet.

Laugh, laugh, ha, ha, ha. But the joke’s underlying truth is particularly telling. Our frenetic world has become a very loud and crazy place and it’s humor that WestJet has stoked before. Last year’s April Fools’ gag by the airline featured “child-free” cabins in a program called “Kargo Kids.”

But the world’s “decibel debacle” – whether it’s the sounds of screaming children, squawking chickens in coach or incessant cell phone banter – is no laughing matter. In New Delhi, for instance, one of the world’s loudest cities, noise levels top 100 decibels in commercial zones. That’s 10-15 decibels above what’s considered safe. And in case you think this is a new problem, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1955 discusses New York City as the world’s noisiest with decibel levels also around 100.

We’re left with a world screaming for quiet. And noisy children, turbines and fictitious flying menageries aside, the aircraft cabin is one of our last quasi-quiet refuges — unless, that is, the Federal Communications Commission gets its way.

Over the last few months, the agency has been pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration to relax its restrictions on in-flight electronic devices. (So what makes cell phone use any safer now versus in the past is another story)

By late this year we might all be sitting next to children and adults who lack the self control to unplug for a few precious hours and keep their phones and their mouths shut.

WestJet may not have a “Kargo Kids,” or “Furry Family,” program yet, but I can envision legacy and LCC carriers using electronic device rule changes to their advantage, segmenting strictly-enforced “cabin quiet” zones as part of ancillary revenue strategy. Instead of selling headphones for $4, why not offer $8 noise-cancelling ear buds? Think about it; that’s a small price to pay for a few hours of silence.

Unlike April Fools’ videos, this is no joke. In fact, it is very much in airlines’ interests to promote policies that talk out of both sides of their mouths – encourage in-flight device usage, popularize Wi-Fi, videoconferencing and shopping while offering pricy rewards remedies to the resulting “volume crisis.”

This sounds a lot like Big Tobacco. Yes, smoking causes “serious diseases and is addictive,” according to the Philip Morris website, but they continue selling cigarettes while also supporting smoking cessation efforts – a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right.

Airlines might not face the same ethical conundrum. But saving our eardrums and damaging them at the same time so that the air cabin really does sound like a zoo – even without an animal free-for-all, isn’t the best policy either. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for in-flight productivity. I get some of my most creative work done in the cabin. I just hope FAA and FCC wrangling doesn’t become more of a shouting match than it already is – on the ground, or above the clouds.