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What’s the Matter with Facebook?

The recent Snapchat vs Facebook Poke snafu is one of the great under the radar tech stories of the year. After witnessing an entire generation of teenagers sext text each other via Snapchat, without in turn having to sign over any information or data to the folks at Menlo Park, Facebook responded by proudly boasting of its carbon-copying of the app, which took only twelve days and featured some very hands on (and mouth on, apparently) contributions from Mark Zuckerberg himself. The app’s name even made reference to “poking,” the hipsterest, old schoolest, most useless feature of the platform.

Yet after only a few days, Poke has plummeted. Like the company’s similarly panic-induced Facebook Camera app (that panic having been induced by eventual Facebook subsidiary Instagram), its initial popularity seems to have worn off as users realized that it did not deviate much from the app(s) it copied and is basically just leveraging the massive Facebook user base. There obviously is nothing wrong with copying a competitor’s features. On one end of the spectrum, there’s early-80s Apple xeroxing the plans for a mouse-driven interface from…Xerox, and there’s Canonical forking the Debian Linux distribution to make the massively popular and intuitive Ubuntu. On the other end, there’s Microsoft trying to paper over the fatal flaws of Windows Vista by imitating the translucency of early OS X, and there’s Facebook trying to protect its turf from its rival social networks.

Social networks are odd. A successful social network often succeeds due to being an early mover or having a critical mass of users, not because it has the best software or coolest features. Myspace, an unsightly and self-described cesspool, bewilderingly overtook Google as the most visited webpage in 2006, and the similarly sloppy Friendster actually pioneered the entire craze. Facebook itself, with its seemingly unchanging blue/white interface, me-too ads, and buggy pre-Googlesque search engine, feels like a relic of the desktop computing era. Its Android app only recently got an influx of native code that brought its performance up to a reasonable speed, and its iPad app was only released this year. No one uses Facebook because of its zippy performance, clean UI, or beauty – they use it because everyone else uses it. If aesthetics and/or innovation mattered, for example, Google+ would be the epicenter of the Internet (although it is worth noting that well-designed networks like Path and Instagram have succeeded in part due to their aesthetics).

Accordingly, Facebook has never had much to fear from the likes of G+ et al unveiling a single killer new feature or design that would allegedly make Facebook seem instantly dated (it already is dated, and no one seems to care). For example, Facebook even copied the nifty way that G+ displays photos and likely burnished its popularity in the process. Rather, the real threat would be creating a new platform, no matter how inane or poorly designed, which could draw (young) users’ eyes away from their News Feed and in turn make Facebook feel in comparison to this new app like a desktop now feels in comparison to an iPad or a Chromebook. Early Instagram did this and now Snapchat has done it, too, by creating a new walled garden that doesn’t play well with Facebook. It should have been disconcerting to Facebook investors when Facebook’s only real response to the Instagram surge was to simply buy out the company, a maneuver which it unsuccessfully tried to repeat with Snapchat.

Facebook has sometimes been likened to the next Google, an assessment which never seemed to make much sense, even if one leaves aside the massive disparity in revenue at similiar stages of company maturity. Google succeeded in large part because it opened up the Web to discovery and then transformed that success into imaginative reinventions of email, cloud storage, and mobile software. By contrast, Facebook has succeeded by combating the open Web, by luring you into a highly regulated, controlled site in which it makes the rules. The advent of the App Store, with its sandboxed discrete apps, aided Facebook’s ascent, too, by cultivating its analogous walled garden approach. But walled gardens have their risks, risks not shared by the creation of something open-ended like Google Search or Linux-based Android. Chief among them is the obvious possibility of another walled garden stealing your users – and when it comes to social networks, user acquisition really is a zero-sum game most of the time (I’m excepting Twitter, which, by virtue of its sheer brevity, is really a different bird, one that doesn’t really compete with any other), with every photo, message and status update migrating from one platform to another. Friendster gave way to Myspace, Myspace to Facebook, and Facebook to nothing, at least not yet.

So is Snapchat the network that finally begins Facebook’s decline? It’s unlikely. Snapchat is not a broad social experience and is more akin to flirting at a bar or mixer. But the waves it has created in the social network community should remove any doubt that social networking is a fickle, volatile sector driven less by software ingenuity than by the whims of young users. It should also be worrying that Facebook, despite its massive cash reserves and abundance of engineering talent, cannot find time to do anything more exciting that clone a sexting app, when the likes of Apple and Google (companies often mentioned in the same breath as Facebook) are pushing us into new computing paradigms. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has something else up his sleeve. For the sake of high-profile tech innovation, I hope he does.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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