Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Will Facebook Go the Way of Myspace?

To many Facebook may seem nearly unstoppable. For nearly the past six years it has been the top social media site in the world. While truly accurate figures are not available, Facebook claims an estimated 1.26 billion users. In any given month 30 billion posts (status updates, photos, links, videos, et. al.) are made. While all of this sounds impressive, it is worth noting that at one time another social network also seemed nearly unstoppable. Founded in 2004, by 2005 Myspace was the top social media site in the world. It would retain that position until it was overtaken by Facebook in April 2008. Since then Myspace has steadily declined. In fact, it not only has fewer users than Facebook, but it also has fewer users than Google+, Twitter, and even LinkedIn. The question is whether what happened to Myspace can also happen to Facebook.

Today there are those who behave as if Myspace's decline happened all at once. In fact, its decline actually took place over several years. It must also be pointed out that it was not a simple case of people preferring Facebook over Myspace. Over the course of a number of years Myspace made a number of missteps that would lead to its decline. In fact, had it not been for these missteps, it seems fully possible that Facebook may have never overtaken Myspace.

One of the first missteps Myspace made was redesigning the site. Starting in 2007 Myspace began making frequent changes to its home page, Myspace Music, and even its profiles. Many of these changes were unpopular with users and many complained that Myspace's pages were simply too cluttered. One noticeable effect of all these changes on the part of many users was that Myspace loaded very slowly when compared to other web sites. With unpopular changes to the site's layout and slow load times it should be little wonder users would desert Myspace for the cleaner, faster loading Facebook.

Complicating all of this was a $900 million, three year deal for advertising that Myspace signed with Google. Arguably it was not the deal itself that killed Myspace as much as the way the social network handled the ads. Over time Myspace added more and more ads, often in awkward places on the screen. The end result was that an already cluttered and slow loading layout was even more cluttered and even slower to load simply from the ads on the pages.  Again, it is little wonder why users would desert Myspace for Facebook.

Of course, even after Facebook overtook it as the top social network, Myspace would remain a powerhouse among social media sites. It was still visited by millions of users each day. Unfortunately, its days were numbered. Hampered by an unwieldy layout with several large ads on each page, Myspace declined until what was one the most powerful social network in the world was an also-ran in the social media world.

While it may seem inconceivable at the moment that Facebook will go the same route as Myspace, it is notable that Facebook has already made some of the same mistakes that Myspace did. Indeed, if anything else, Facebook is more notorious than Myspace ever was for making unpopular changes to the site. Between 2008 and 2011 Facebook made several changes to user profiles alone. To give one an idea of how often such changes could occur, consider the fact that Facebook introduced a new user profile in January 2011 only to introduce the original, double column Timeline in September 2011. As it turned out many, perhaps most, users despised the double column Timeline to the point that Facebook was forced to introduce the new single column version in early 2013.

While Facebook has introduced sometimes unpopular changes to user profiles, it has from time to time tried changing the news feed, this despite the fact that changes to the news feed seem to be what upsets users the most. In 2011 Facebook revamped the news feed so that it did not display posts in the traditional, reverse chronological order, but only in order of "Top Stories" as determined by Facebook's algorithm. Outrage on the part of users was so swift and immediate that Facebook was forced to change the news feed back. About the same time Facebook introduced the ticker, a stream of friends' posts in real time. The ticker proved about as popular as the changes to the news feed so that Facebook was forced to give users a way to shut it off.

One mistake Facebook has made that Myspace never did is the algorithm it uses to prioritise users' posts (at one time called EdgeRank). Despite Facebook's insistence on using the algorithm, it seems that most users do not particularly want posts from their friends or from pages they follow filtered.  Facebook has often claimed that it filters posts so as to reduce noise and give users a richer experience of the site. Given that many users do not want their content filtered at all, it should not be surprising that Facebook has been accused of using the algorithm to force pages to pay to promote their posts. Whether this accusation is true or not, many users dislike the fact that Facebook filters posts and have said so, to the point that the algorithm could be a deal breaker for many users if it begins filtering too many posts.

The one mistake Myspace made that Facebook has not yet repeated is the placement of ads. Ads have increased on Facebook over the years, but they are still small in size, generally number about four at most, and are all situated in the right sidebar. While one hears the occasional complaint about Facebook ads, it does not seem to be a concern of most users. That having been said, it soon could be. In December 2013 Facebook started rolling out video ads in news feeds to some users. Now the video ads are only 15 seconds in length and their audio is muted, but it seems likely that they will annoy users nonetheless. Of course, if Facebook goes ahead with its plans for video ads one has to wonder how long it will be before the video ads are longer than 15 seconds and the audio is not muted. In that case, it seems likely Facebook will have hammered the last nail in its coffin.

At the moment is seems to me that Facebook could survive and event thrive. Even if it is overtaken by another social network (and I think Google+ could do so at some point), I think it could remain a powerhouse in the world of social media. My reasoning is that it seems as if Facebook has largely learned its lesson. It has made no more changes to user profiles since early last year and it has made no major changes to the news feed beyond tweaking its algorithm. Provided Facebook makes no changes to profiles and news feeds, and does not add more ads to the site, it seems quite likely it could continue as it always has. It could perhaps further guarantee its survival by doing away with the algorithm or, at least, giving users more control over the filters (a "volume control" as we call it on Google+).

Unfortunately, given Facebook's history, it seems that at some point it could once more start making unpopular changes to the site. Facebook is currently testing a new layout for the news feed. If they go forward with it and it proves unpopular, and if they follow it up with unpopular changes to user profiles, Facebook could indeed go the way of Myspace. Indeed, this would especially be the case if they decided to add more ads to the site and to add video ads in particular.

Of course, if Facebook does make these mistakes and does start going into decline, like Myspace it will not happen overnight. In fact, Facebook's decline would seem likely to take longer than Myspace, given it has far more users than Myspace did at its peak. Regardless, it seems possible that by 2022 or so we could be talking about Facebook the way we now talk about Myspace.  Right now Facebok really needs to be careful of what it does and keep a careful eye on any errors that Myspace also made.

1 comment:

jim marquis said...

Well, there will always be something better. I have to say I really enjoy Facebook. Have met a lot of nice people and reconnected with many from my past.