Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?

With Feature-Creep, Social Network Is Wandering Far From Its Simple Roots of Enabling Trusted Social Connections.

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
I knew I was on thin ice when a close friend who is CEO of a tech company cautioned me: "It will get attention, and people will call it BS, and I will be one of them." It was a sobering comment echoed by the folks at Ad Age when they gently suggested I better have a damn good argument as claiming that Facebook has "jumped the shark" was likely to be "controversial."

So let me say from the get-go that my only goal here is to understand the best use of Facebook -- you can't use Facebook well if you don't know what Facebook does well. I have no axe to grind with Facebook but I hold no sacred cows either. The rapid growth of Facebook over the last 18 months requires thoughtful marketers to consider this question given its ascent to the equivalent of the 900-pound marketing gorilla of the social-media world.

Let's go back 18 months where I first waxed poetically in Ad Age about how Communities of Trust are stronger, and Facebook was the poster child of this model, especially in contrast to MySpace (I'll come back to this later). The value proposition for marketers was simple to understand; social connections were trusted; and the user experience was simple to navigate.

Since then, Facebook has been evolving quickly so it can become a monetizable marketing platform. Mark Zuckerberg himself has spoken rather grandly of Facebook as being at the center of the transformation affecting everything from news and movies to music and gaming. "Our view is that we should play a role in helping to reform all those industries, and we'll get value proportional to what we put in" (Mediapost article, November 2010). His most recent interview on "60 Minutes" reaffirmed his claim of Facebook having transformed the internet itself.

Ever the practitioner, I could see that Facebook was morphing into an uber social/communication/entertainment hub. I could also see that the transformation was not without some bumps. It was getting more complicated for marketers and users alike. For instance, in What's a Facebook Fan Really Worth to Marketers, we see how hard it is for marketers to assign value to a Facebook fan as we saw two vastly different answers from two very credible tech companies. A confusing state for marketers to be sure.

For "Judy Consumer," the introduction of feature after feature muddled the Facebook experience and I shared my personal "complexity" frustration in this blog.

Finally, the "outside" world was not taking Facebook's transformation on face value either (pun intended). In a rolling thunder of controversy starting in May, we see a highly vocal and diverse public set of voices expressing growing distrust in Facebook. Here's just a small sampling:

  • Four NYU kids blew away their funding goal to "build the anti-Facebook" (ReadWriteWeb)
  • Facebook endured harsh backlash resulting from its handling of the privacy firestorm
  • Most untimely, the movie "The Social Network" gave more people more ammunition to "... not feel good about using Facebook," as one ex-Facebook devotee told me (they are going to Tumblr)
  • A pastor was counseling his congregation to give up Facebook as a way to save marriages
  • Tim Berners-Lee, the granddaddy of the internet, believes that Facebook "threatens" web future because of the data portability issue

The negative sentiment seemed to revolve around what Brian Solis helpfully (and glowingly, I might add) explains in this article, Google and the Rise of Facebook, as the vision of Facebook to become our online hub and displace Google along the way. Facebook is doing a full-frontal attack on Google; Gmail vs. Facebook Messaging, Google Search vs. Facebook Search, Google Voice vs. Facebook (+ Skype) and even Google Docs vs. Facebook (+ Microsoft). The scope leaves even the most ardent Facebook fan doing an "intellectual double-take" to imagine Facebook so broadly.

For my part, I had to start asking myself, Can it be that Facebook was stretching users' expectations too far too fast and adding too much complexity in the process? Did they wander too far from their "simple" roots of enabling trusted social connections? Can it be Facebook had jumped the shark?

Tough questions to be sure, especially because the company is barely 6 years old, thereby making my prognostication of an impending demise sound ridiculously premature (aka, BS). All true, which is why I decided to get a dozen "second opinions" from a variety of intellectuals, technologists and marketers themselves with a very direct question, "In Facebook's evolution to become an uber community/marketing/hub platform (with all its consequential complexity), did it dilute its primary, simple value proposition of enabling trusted connections? And in doing so did it risk its future?"

Categorically, everyone utterly believed that Facebook was not "at risk" for a few very good reasons. First, as Clara Shih, founder-CEO of Hearsay and author of "The Facebook Era," explained, Facebook gets better because they get bigger and they get bigger because they are getting better! The perfect self-sustaining engine. It's a compelling argument buoyed by the fact that Facebook usage is going up, bad press and all, capturing a whopping 23.1% of online ads (ComScore) and one in four U.S. page views. Second, there's the very pragmatic challenge of getting people to move "en masse" from an established social network to a new one without some disruptive technology. Third (and this was from the marketers), Facebook is the main social-network game and will likely get bigger given its already humongous size, even if they are not sure about its effectiveness (I note with surprise that no one who expressed doubt about Facebook was willing to go public -- hmm).

The common thread here is the a priori assumption that being bigger (stimulated by lots of features), in and of itself, is the main value to marketers. Sure, it will be enriched with targetable data, but scalable size is the end game.

And this precisely is where I, singularly it seems, take a hard left turn from mainstream opinion. Ultimately I believe that feature overkill will result in a complicated user experience that is going to work against it over time (MySpace, anyone?). Clay Shirkey gives this concept substance in a clever piece entitled "The Collapse of the Complex Business Model," (BTW, Shirkey's piece is not about Facebook -- that linkage is my concoction alone).

The article explores research from Joseph Tainter done in 1988 that delves into the dynamic that makes complex, ancient civilizations like the Mayan or Romans collapse suddenly. "Every group had complex social structures, advanced technology, but ... they hadn't collapsed despite their cultural sophistication; they'd collapsed because of it." The "aha" moment for me was when I understood how successful societies deliver more and better benefits to their members which, invariably, leads to the tax of "complexity." This tax is easily born by members until the added complexity does not add enough incremental value to compensate for the "complexity" tax due. Then, over time, the burden of complexity causes the society to implode in on itself.

This was the trap that had caught Facebook in its grip. In chasing scale, they used "feature sprawl" to attract users and in doing so made the Facebook experience more and more complex, imposing a tax that ultimately would not be borne by users. Far better, in my mind, would have been for them to have anchored their growth strategy in their heritage as a trusted social network by creating more trusted interactions between members and innovating in the "trust" space within the Facebook experience.

Which leads us back to the basic, practitioner's question I was trying to answer: What does Facebook do well? While I can't answer that yet, I did learn a few things along the way. First, I am reminded that Facebook is a WIP and that means we should all stay open to new ideas. Second, I am convinced that a complicated UE will erode the Facebook base over time and inextricably. Third, the jury is still out whether marketing value in the social marketing sphere is derived from a large scale, data-enriched audience vs. a trusted social-network community. It seems like Facebook has cast its lot with the former; my bet is on the latter (though I don't think this has to be an "either/or" proposition).

Finally, much to my surprise, I also learned that people don't want to publicly criticize Facebook, which is kind of why I am putting this out there, subjecting myself to probable ridicule. Facebook is affecting marketers and "Judy Consumer" in ways never experienced, and it needs all our voices -- not just the biggest agencies or the rudest critics. At 6 years old, in tech years, Facebook is in its prime, so now is the time to let them hear all our intelligent voices before it is too late and too much will be too set in corporate stone.

Mine is just one voice, but if you have an opinion – take a stand and share it. We will all benefit.

For now, though, I've got to get back to work and figure out what my next Facebook page will do. Wish me luck -- I need it.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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