Is Facebook having a MySpace moment?

Facebook goes public in May, simultaneous with the founder’s glitzy wedding. The stock hits an immediate high – and steadily declines since. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Zuckerberg timed everything to perfection – getting “other people’s money” in as the popularity wave peaked.  And making a heap of cash for himself, naturally. Other pundits take the view that Facebook’s statistics alone ensure that the company will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Taking a more middle road, Kathryn Cave, editor at IDG Connect, posted recently asking: “Is Facebook the New Britney Spears?” 

Personally, I would have gone for the headline:  “Is Facebook  ‘following’ Lindsay Lohan (into rehab)?”; or:  “Is Facebook ‘LIke’ Paris Hilton?”

Sure, the stats look awesome: more than 50% of Americans have Facebook profiles, and market penetration elsewhere has been equally impressive.  But there’s the crux.

Is Facebook just famous for being famous?  What is Facebook’s market?  The question I and lots of others asked way back still remains unanswered: how will Facebook effectively monetize the service it offers?   How will it cope with user backlash?  And how will it protect itself from competitors? What’s to stop some new, brash crowd from doing to Facebook what it did to MySpace?  

Maybe ‘cause I come from a manufacturing, and then a software engineering background, I want to see “real” products and services, and intellectual assets.

What unique intellectual property does Facebook have?  What real products and services does it offer? Zip Zilch.  It had an idea, but, unlike Microsoft, Apple and Google, it never created something “saleable”, or that can be protected with patents.  In fact, I reckon Facebook is extremely vulnerable, in all areas, and this is behind the 67% (to date) decline in its worth (a whopping $40 billion plus pile of cash that went walk-about)

So – why are investors bailing out?  Well, here are what I see as some of the reasons:

Facebook is free. Which in part accounts for its meteoric rise.  For millions of people, Facebook is a pretty central part of their online social activities.  But, human nature being what it is – all those millions of Facebook addicts are getting very peeved over the “advertising” issues, and how it’s becoming more invasive, and, some would say, downright misleading.  (Ever had “Likes” mysteriously appear on your profile, and you’re totally sure you had nothing to do with it?)  “Free” equates to “no commitment”, easy come, easy go.  Addiction craves change. When something new comes along . . .

And, in simple speak, how does “like” turn into actual sales?  To hell with “like” – I’d LOVE to drive a Ferrari (and, kind donor, red is not an absolute must, here); and so the list of likes goes on. But all the folk I chat with about this are totally oblivious to most of this commercial “liking” being exchanged between profiles.  Let’s prove it.  If you “Like” a photo that a Facebook friend has posted, often you get a comment back, and there’s a bit of social exchange thankfully slightly more meaningful than just clicking the blessed “Like” button. But have you EVER had or seen any meaningful response related to “Liking” a commercial product? Eventually it just has the W.T.F. syndrome. In other words – it’s blah. Yada yada. There’s no “coolness” to be gained by simply “liking” something. In fact, it’s uncool.  Possession is 10/10ths of the Law, in today’s materialistic society. Trying to build a business model around getting people to “like” things becomes like unrequited love. Sad and slightly pathetic for all concerned. 

Mr Zuckerberg evidently never thought or heard of the swinging 60s, when every sentence was saturated with the word “like” until, like, you could have entire conversations, like, just using the word like. 

Second reason: There’s no loyalty factor. Ditching MySpace was no train smash. It wasn’t painful, or even uncomfortable. We just did it. And once the flow started, there was no stopping it.

Perhaps Facebook’s situation is best illustrated by putting it up against three other I.T. giants. Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

Google made its debut with an awesome search engine. The word “Google” is now part of global language. And then Google created GMail: a free cloud based service, built “on top” we could say, of Google’s search algorithms.  And people abandoned Hotmail (and all the other look-alikes) in droves – and stayed away. Like most company executives, I’m very suspicious of cloud-based services – but GMail works for me.  I wouldn’t be without it. And it goes on innovating, and introducing services I like, and want to use. Most tellingly – it has managed to integrate advertising without peeving me off. (Which is a compliment to the Google boys, and a dig at Facebook).

Microsoft:  whoa – you say, how can we compare Facebook with Microsoft. And that’s just the point, but maybe not for the reasons that flashed through your mind. Like Microsoft, Facebook is in the software game – but Facebook has nothing to fall back on. If Windows 8 fails – life at Redmond continues. The feeling I get from the Facebook boys is nervousness – the house of cards syndrome.  Microsoft has over the years totally peeved millions of users, but, generally, its products work, and we need (and pay for) them. If this need, and connection, didn’t exist, we would all have moved to Linux and Open Office, and a life of open source nirvana. Come on, it’s true. Or, is someone going to suggest that we like paying heaps of hard earned cash into the Redmond goldmine? 

Apple: here the comparison really starts to hurt Facebook. I have NEVER had a “wow, that’s cool” moment using Facebook. In fact, the total opposite. Unlike Apple, Facebook “software” is klutzy, cumbersome, non-intuitive, ugly and a general pain in the ass. Mention Facebook and the usual response is: “Oh, Facebook just wastes too much time. I don’t go there much anymore”.  By comparison, think about Apple. A company with its roots in the I.T. industry. An innovator, often visionary. A company that delivers beautifully designed “cool” products that work, and keep their customers coming back for more. (And even have Microsoft eating their hearts out with envy)

Unfair comparisons?  Not at all. This is the real business world, a brutally tough, competitive place. Essentially it’s all about software.  Google software, Microsoft software, Apple software – and how Facebook’s software compares.  To be totally honest, speaking as a developer, I would hate to work at Facebook. Their software give me the feeling, all the time, that it’s “cobbled” together, that there’s no real vision.  Betcha the actual code would be classified under one of these two categories:  “Spagetti Junction” or “Object Hell”. (Non programmers, please excuse the techno-jargon. But you might like to Google those two phrases. Either way, I reckon it just adds to Facebook’s list of problems. 

So – are those “user” statistics all they’re cracked up to be?  Millions of people have opened Facebook profiles – but how many of them actually are daily users?  No-one is saying.  Is Facebook like a bank, where millions of people opened accounts, but never deposit any money?  Time will tell. But I don’t think the market is just acting on a whim. The insiders are in the know, and the tide is running.

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O tempora, O mores

Once I used to go walking with an old woman who knew the name (in Zulu and English) of any plant, tree or shrub you cared to point out. And, with a little prompting, she would reveal its secret properties, medicinal and psychic. Roots, flowers, bark, tubers, were not just cures for fevers, aches and pains. Photosynthesis was just one of the tricks plants had mastered.  They were alchemists, magicians of a chemistry that had a pervasive, subtle affect on people’s feelings, relationships – life itself. Eat the wrong one, and you could be instantly dead. Use the correct ones, and one could be loved, successful, at peace even with one’s enemies.

Granny Laughter was her name. And we’d talk about the world. Not so long ago, things changed very little, even over several lifetimes. Short of something cataclysmic, the natural world just got on with its business. Time was measured by the life of trees.  Wild animals walked their age-old paths in the forests. Food, clothing, housing – all recognizable and familiar, decade after decade. What you learned in childhood came mostly from grandparents – accumulated and passed on over generations. And it remained useful through an entire life. So different from the present time, where exponential advances in technology make “knowledge” and “expertise” obsolete overnight. When last did you need to use the commands for DOS? A technology that controlled the computer (and business) world, less than 30 years ago, and was the start of Microsoft’s meteoric rise to fame and riches.

When I was small my grandfather taught me all about ingenious little contraptions that worked with clock springs, or gravity, or a combination. Not far from perpetual motion. Now things work with software, a set of instructions that starts off written in simple English, gets converted into strings of ones and zeros, and is processed by tiny electrical impulses acting on a sliver of fused sand. It is said the next advance will be to use biological computer processors. Imagine using your pot-plant to surf the Web. Will there be any curious side-effects if one uses poppies, or Indian hemp? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

Whatever transpires, one thing we can predict with certainty: today’s technology will be as obsolete as buggy whips and manual type-writers. All good and well, unless this relentless progress is dogged by the Law of Diminishing Returns – reliability decreases as complexity increases.

Does this incessant rush for newness increase our longing for a world where things were dependable, where change was measured in the growth of trees. Does overwhelming change cause us to hold dearly onto our memories. Is the past sweeter in the mind because it is transient?  Each instant of time crystallized as a snowflake whose exact likeness will never be seen again?

Can humanity go on like this – or will we become so rootless that nothing matters except the here and now.

I for one like moss. The stuff that rolling stones don’t gather. I need to walk in the woods, breathe air alive with the subtle wizardry of the plant world. It’s timeless.

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