Facebook’s troubles of late have prompted many pundits to make the comparison to MySpace, a social site that briefly ruled the world between 2005-2008. MySpace persisted through the first human face transplant, avian flu, the iPhone and the end of Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba, but they couldn’t beat Mark Zuckerburg.
Facebook passed MySpace in traffic in 2008 and hasn’t looked back since.
The problem with the MySpace comparison is that MySpace was diminished by better competition. On the other hand, America Online suffered a precipitous decline without the presence of a clear competitor. They fragmented. Users found any number of alternative internet service providers and their community may be somewhat reconstituted in the social networks that we see today.
Could user value of Facebook diminish enough to prompt a fragmentation rather than an exodus?
Is Facebook eating itself?
A big driver of the AOL’s community were volunteer Community Leaders, who were hand-picked because of their activity and contribution to online forums. These CLs were given license to moderate forums, were given special access to AOL content and were given free AOL service. With very little incentive these people were the backbone of the AOL community.
Facebook doesn’t have Community Leaders per se, but they do have advocates and super-users. Advocates whose loyalty to Facebook is exceptionally high and the super-users who generate a large proportion of content on Facebook. If this were the 90s, these would be the attributes that AOL would have used to recruit Community Leaders.
Clay Shirkey recounts in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age that America Online continued to escalate their monetization efforts while their community leaders continued to work as volunteers. Prompted by a scaling back of their minuscule compensation to a pro-rated version of AOL (recall that they received free internet in exchange for their work), AOL’s Community Leaders filed a class action lawsuit against AOL. It was settled ten years later for $15 million, a somewhat paltry sum all things considered. But the collateral damage was a loss of thousands of AOL’s staunchest advocates.
As Facebook implements the highly unpopular Timeline product, hits users with a barrage of various ad products, makes wholesale changes to user accounts, I’m curious if there is sufficient groundswell to move on without a clear alternative? Are these changes alienating the people Facebook needs to grow?
Facebook is no MySpace
Although MySpace comparisons are popular, they probably aren’t relevant. MySpace just got flat out beat by a better product.
With a long tail of more-popular products such as Twitter, Google Plus, Path, Pinterest, App.net and others vying for smaller pieces of the social pie – what is the likelihood that Facebook’s audience could fragment?
I’m not sure how plausible the possibility is, but I think it’s interesting to consider what social media would look like if Goliath ceased to exist?