This Is the Way Facebook Ends

Let's not forget everything Facebook has done for us. In leveraging our social curiosity and innate egomania, Mark Zuckerberg unleashed a social revolution, compelling us to share even the most mundane aspects of our lives. No longer anonymous trolls...

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May 29 2012, 2:30pm

Let’s not forget everything Facebook has done for us. In leveraging our social curiosity and innate egomania, Mark Zuckerberg unleashed a social revolution, compelling us to share even the most mundane aspects of our lives. No longer anonymous trolls scouring the wild west of the web, we now had an online presence defined by our actual names, a virtual representation of ourselves with a perpetual audience. Suddenly, we were empowered, intoxicated even, by our constant connectedness.

And for the past eight years, Facebook has been the central neural network of the Internet’s link-sharing brain. But as the site has grown, so have our needs. Now that the company’s public, it’s crunch time, and the skeptics and haters are lining up to talk about how it might all end. One thing's for certain: whether it’s a bang or a whimper, Facebook is not forever. How could it collapse? Let me count the ways.

Facebook screws up

Since Facebook's inception, Mark Zuckerberg has had an uncanny knack for maintaining the site's exceptional growth, despite royally pissing off the majority of its users with shady privacy practices, monetization strategies like the Beacon fiasco, and of course, its latest incarnation, Timeline. And yet, despite all the user resentment, we're apparently using the site more than ever before. It's this kind of fortitude in the face of user frustration that has led some to compare Zuckerberg’s forceful genius to that of Steve Jobs.

But while Jobs always had his doubters, vocal critics, and fair share of questionable philosophies, he commanded the kind of respect that’s made Mac fanboys some of the most annoying self-described geeks around the world. His death was felt internationally, as the world mourned the passing of its greatest tech rockstar.

Zuck doesn't have the same kind of cult following. He’s been ridiculed all over the Internet and in a million-dollar Hollywood movie. Many simply don't trust him. Beyond the anodyne hacking talk and his “keep shipping” motto, oracle readers have had to rely on chat transcripts from years of legal cases to learn about his thinking and intentions (for instance, that he once thought of his users as "dumb fucks.")

As net neutrality guru Tim Wu noted, Facebook has a lot of bad karma. “No one really loves the company,” he tweeted the other day. “We just feel stuck with it.” Really, we’re waiting for a good enough reason. At some point, Zuckerberg will push too hard — a new setting you can't turn off, a "frictionless" feature that shares too much, a product that simply pisses you off too hard — and users will ragequit for good. The company's controversial IPO and the simultaneous pressure to build up ad revenue will only accelerate this process.

At some point, Zuckerberg will push too hard, and users will ragequit for good

Of course, people have been calling for this for quite some time (almost with every new abrasive change to the site), but no true revolution has materialized. Thanks to the network effect, sheer inertia, and the lack of a compelling alternative, Facebook remains top dog. Our often-surprising threshold for pain doesn't help, but it is finite. We are always potentially one bad update away from the tipping point. We've seen the internet rally together before and Facebook’s track record makes it easy to hate.

An amazing new upstart

Before Facebook there was Friendster. Plus MySpace, Yahoo, and even Compuserve, among countless others. The idea for Facebook, however brilliantly executed, wasn't necessarily built on some revolutionary, genius idea. It was one of many social networking sites to emerge around campuses in 2004, and it happened to be the thing that everyone started using. Like many success stories of the past, the thing that Facebook nailed was timing.

Facebook arrived at the advent of Web 2.0. Broadband reached the masses and the Internet was going mainstream. Photos that once took agonizing minutes to load on our noisy dial-up connections could now be shared near instantaneously with our dirt cheap digital cameras. The arrival of new HTML standards meant that the new web wasn't just prettier, it was highly functional. Finally, the world was ready for a social network. Suddenly, Facebook became the coolest party in town.

By Zuckerberg's own admission, his goal has always been to make a really cool product. But for all the power "cool" instills, it remains an ephemeral and elusive quality. Things change and people are fickle. Facebook will without a doubt continue to adapt, but at one point, the site becomes a victim of its own success. It's tough to maintain cool when you're sharing the bathroom line with your boss, your grandparents, and that racist cousin that digs Ron Paul.

Facebook Alternatives (GMASHR)

Sure, Zuckerberg has far exceeded everyone's expectations, but it's part of the beautiful, inevitable evolution of the web. The next big thing, the next cool party, is always right around the corner (It's probably not Google+, but it could be called Diaspora), fueled in no small part by Zuckerberg’s personal success, funded by the industry’s latest, greatest bubble. And the final stage for that washed-up club running on fumes? Corporate parties.

Government regulates big data

If there's one thing that we've learned from the endless conveyer belt of acronyms in the past six months, PIPA, SOPA, and CISPA (which Facebook has openly supported), the integrity of the internet is constantly under attack. The internet has so far pushed back, admirably so, and to great effect. But how long can they resist? There's an incomprehensible amount of cash at stack. There’s also terrorists.

These threats against the internet, as a platform for the democratic exchange of information, create an existential problem for Facebook. If we no longer see the web as a free and open exchange, modeled on the open sharing of the scientific community where it began, Facebook, as the centralized network, one that owns all of our personal data — ready to slop it off to the highest bidder or some overreaching government agency — starts to look very suspicious.

CISPA Infographic (Lumin Consulting)

By some accounts, the NSA is already monitoring much of the internet, storing over 20 trillion “transactions,” e-mails, instant messages, phone calls, at their $2 billion spy center in Utah, according to whistleblower William Binney. The passing of legislation like CISPA pushes such surveillance to the surface, allowing companies to legally share vast amounts of sensitive, private data with government agencies based on broadly defined “cyber threats.”

And beyond general violations against the sanctity of the ’net, Facebook itself could be targeted, no thanks to its own overwhelming success. As Facebook continues to soak up mindshare, invading our everyday and changing our habits — most users in their 20s check it daily — it starts to become fundamental to our lives. It could even be called a utility, muses Danah Boyd, and that means regulations.

Such a dynamic shift would force us to re-evaluate our concept of sharing online. It's not that sharing would end, we’re totally hooked; we'd simply need a new model by which we transfer packets to each other, ideally one that doesn't involve a central facilitator in cahoots with big corporations and big government. Facebook, as it exists, doesn't fit into that picture.

The next big thing, the next cool party, is always right around the corner

Because as much as Facebook would have us believe otherwise, privacy isn't dead. It isn’t hard to imagine that our need for security will soon trump the advantages of short term convenience. We'll want to be arbiters of our data, to own it, to have total control. We'll want to know that if we share something with some friends and family, that they're the final and only recipients. We want to feel safe.

Sure, it sounds idealistic, but these are daunting challenges technologists are already tackling, projects like Eben Moglen's FreedomBox, a concept where users keep all of their data on their own personal server as to “provide privacy in normal life, and safe communications for people seeking to preserve their freedom in oppressive regimes.”

Slow decline

Facebook taught us how to share, but in many ways, it was always a vanity project that got the job done, but never truly excelled. Now that we're accustomed to the process, we want to share better, more intimately, more discretely, with purpose. On paper, Facebook is good at a lot — messaging, posting photos, sharing links — but it isn't great at particularly anything. In our eternal quest for excellence and efficiency, Facebook becomes an afterthought, as we gravitate towards niche products that more finely address our needs.

Stealing the spotlight (Infegy)

LinkedIn already dominates the professional world, Twitter has long found its meaning, and Google continues to provide essential tools we use day-to-day. And with Instagram's ascension to superstardom, Facebook's inherent vulnerability has been viciously exposed. Nothing is safe, not even stupid party pics. Zuckerberg, to his credit, is fully aware. Buying the latest photo-sharing sensation wasn't just another strategic acquisition, this was full-on threat management.

Before long, Facebook will no longer have anything to offer us. People do still use Aol, after all.

As the social network continues to grow, and it's already bulging from the britches, it becomes less and less useful for its users. Efforts to contain the noise have compromised content. Already, the site is too cumbersome for a real-time newsfeed. So instead of seeing what all your friends are actually sharing, we’re treated with what Facebook engineers think you should be seeing, based on a blackbox algorithm. With every added over-sharing user, the Facebook experience gets further muddled, burdened by the very structures that keep the whole thing humming.

It is only a matter of time before these diminishing returns start to catch up. Before long, Facebook will no longer have anything to offer us, nothing of value at least. The site might still be around, it still might make money, and we still might still be on it, but no one will really care. People do still use AOL, after all.

The end game

Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe that Facebook is different, and in many ways, he has a point. Soaring to prominence, the site’s rise from Harvard pet project to overarching virtual universe has been spectacular, unprecedented even. It has become a source of news, an addictive arcade, and a quintessential purveyor of prominent brands. At certain times, the service has even empowered those most in need of a voice.

Above all, its greatest innovation is the “like” button, a global platform charting the world’s first social graph, one “thumbs up” at a time, acting as chief facilitator in an ongoing human experiment that is re-wiring our very consciousness. If Google knows what we’re looking for, Facebook understands how we want to be perceived, its collection of willful affirmations, a vast and valuable singularity that transcends anything Yahoo or AOL ever dreamed of possessing. It is this awesome achievement that sometimes makes Facebook seem different, invincible even.

Yet deep down, we always knew she was never the one. Facebook has never been perfect. Even as the site has brought us together, we don’t necessarily feel closer. Unable to quench those feelings of missing out, it has left us unsatisfied. Having sold us out, it has broken our trust. For some, it is a flawed relationship that has run its course. Others still find it too hard to say goodbye.

Zuckerberg won’t make it any easier. As eager has he’s been to get us to stay, he’s equally determined in making it impossible to leave, creating a closed garden around our unsearchable, untransferable data to the general dismay of everyone, especially Google. Zuckerberg has always been preparing for this moment.

Now, having never truly won over our hearts, he hopes to seduce us with money, fresh off a juicy IPO that netted the company $16 billion — like the company’s “secret” newly resuscitated project to build a phone, a tardy effort in a market that is already slipping the company by. If we are to take any stock in the Hollywood version of Mark however, this fear of rejection will only further push him to grow, adapt, and squeeze every last penny out of its near one billion users, fueling his desire to prove us wrong all over again. With love lost, Zuckerberg’s grip will only tighten.

And after eight years together, he knows us like no one has ever known before, understands us in a way we didn’t quite understand ourselves. Yet after eight years of sharing, we feel exploited, still empty inside. After eight years of giving, we feel that maybe, we’ve given too much. With the spark on its dying embers, maybe we’re over this Facebook thing. Maybe we’re finally ready to call it quits and move on with our lives.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll decide to stay a bit longer. But one thing is certain: For all of his successes, Mark Zuckerberg remains a man firmly on the wrong side of history. No matter how long we drag this out, Facebook too shall pass. And we’ll get over it; we’re going to be fine.

But let’s still be friends, okay?

Follow Alec Liu on Twitter: @sfnuop.

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