I am amazed at how much Facebook can get away with. And yet, their self-inflicted problems and arrogance have not made a dent in their seemingly inexorbale march toward world social media dominance. Until now.
I often get asked, “What competitor will unseat Facebook,” and my answer is “Facebook.”
The answer is not so puzzling as it may seem. Facebook is the most pervasive social networking platform, with a whopping 80 percent of the U.S. young folks aged 13-24 owning a profile. And the fastest-growth is occuring internationally and with the demographic over 50!
More important, there is an incredibly high emotional switching cost that a competitor would have to overcome to beat Facebook down. A competitor would not only have to get somebody to switch, it would have to get all their friends and family members to switch too. I recently wrote that it would be easier to change your house than to change your social network!
But are there cracks forming in the Facebook master plan? What can “defeat” Facebook? Only two things, in my opinion, and they are both controlled by Facebook itself — privacy and relevance.
Facebook has been arrogantly toying with our privacy on an almost weekly basis with nary a peep from the masses. The company has been the subject of a U.S. Congressional investigation, numerous FTC probes, international regulation and regular hack attacks and it has not made a ripple in its growth rate. In fact, the amount of time people spent on Facebook accelerated in 2011.
About 15 years ago, I owned stock in Nike. Every teen I knew coveted Nike tennis shoes and the brand expertly nurtured their cool factor. Then one day my son came home from high school wearing leather boots. “Where are your tennis shoes?” I asked. “Oh, nobody is wearing them any more,” he said. “All my friends are wearing leather shoes.” I immediately sold the stock, which was a very good move at that time.
The point is that the business plan of any brand that depends on the youth movement is this: “Be cool and stay cool.” This is an extraodinarily difficult task. I recently discussed the fact the fact that one of the reasons Google + was flailing around is because it is not on the radar screens of teens. They are a “Tom Hanks” brand when they need to be a “Jay Z” brand. If the cool kids find something hipper than Facebook, a migration will certainly occur.
IS IT TIPPING?
My Spidey Senses are starting to tingle. New research by Reuters showed that a third of Facebook users are bored with the network. In the past few weeks, some of my graduate students have reported that their teens are starting to use Google+. I have never heard that feedback before.
The IPO debacle and subsequent stock price plummet pierced the Facebook shield of invincibility.
And the Internet was warring against Facebook again this week after new features were released that included a “Find Friends Nearby” option to find people around you, and a new requirement making Facebook email addresses a mandatory default setting, another in a long line of changes the company has made without informing users.
And here’s another hint that a Facebook rebellion might be brewing. Mainstream media, which usually covers fluffy stuff like Facebook etiquette and YouTube memes came out with guns blazing after some of these recent incidents. Here are highlights from a segment on NBC’s top-rated “Today Show,” featuring commentators Donny Deutsch, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, and Star Jones.
Deutsch: The whole nature of Facebook is all about connecting and social intimacy. It’s all of a sudden become Big Brother. The whole IPO thing was also damaging. This brand is in trouble for a lot of reasons and is going to come crashing down.
Snyderman: I was in a meeting with several Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists a few weeks ago and they have all stopped using Facebook because they were “spoofed” and their identities were pushed out to other people. They think the privacy issues are so egregious that they have stopped using it. So they no longer will participate and these people are the heart and soul of Silicon Valley. I think it is a very damaged brand.
Jones: Young people signed on to Facebook for connectivity. Now that young people are thinking that their businesss is out on the street, it’s just not cool any more and then that’s it — it’s over if Facebook is not cool any more.
Snyderman: Yes, that’s the issue. Facebook is NOT cool any more.
Deutsch — It’s not even the privacy issue. It’s a tarnished brand. It’s not the privacy issue any more, it’s the “not cool issue.”
Now, these 50-year-old business executives are not necessarily Facebook’s core audience but I thought this exchange was pretty bold.
DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?
These are anecdotes and data points but does it really represent a shift in momentum away from Facebook? Or, is Facebook so powerful and popular that these issues will just slide off of them like a fried egg on a Teflon skillet?
What are you hearing out there? Are you seeing signs of a meaningful backlash against Facebook?
Illustration: The original source of this is a Getty photograph. I pasted the Zuckerberg picture on there. It is not a real protest sign.