It’s crunch time for Facebook

By Andrew J Scott on November 13th, 2012

If Facebook wants to maintain its position as the silo for the vast majority of our social data (at least in the Western world), it must focus more on becoming the plumbing of the social web. In other words, more of a platform and less of a destination website.

It can’t do both brilliantly. If it tries, I predict it will eventually go the way of AOL and Compuserve before it. They held on to their walled garden model too tightly and didn’t evolve radically enough. They died as epicentres of the web as a consequence.

In their case, they lost to the world wide web. In Facebook’s case, it could be to some new distributed social graph or some open source social protocol thingamajig-whatsit.

Facebook needs to focus more on the social plumbing and then needs to work how to monetise that plumbing. If they don’t, I believe the wisdom the ownership of that plumbing could provide will eventually slip from their grasp.

Assume for a moment Zuck does not choose this path for Facebook. Whatever kills Facebook will probably not look like, nor be much like, Facebook is today (so unless something drastic happens to Diaspora, it rules them out). It will be something different.

Facebook has “Like” buttons and comment boxes around the web, but that’s not enough. They still focus on sucking content “in” to be displayed on to provide some insight for Facebook about people’s tastes.

“Facebook Connect” and other features are all important tentacles to the body, but the users themselves still head to Facebook itself via web or app, to gain value from using the service.

Social data, social media and social gamification (whichever label you wish to choose) are natural additions to our online lives because we are social animals. So the growth of “social” will continue unabated until it encompasses every facet of our digital existence (expect your Nest thermostat to be comparing your neighbour’s house temperature with your own sometime soon).

For Facebook, all this of course means a grand opportunity. Many people understand that, hence the investment which was poured in early and the subsequent IPO. But I don’t believe Facebook can be sufficiently agile to provide the social plumbing and storage of all that social data, as well as keep hold of all those eyeballs, on what is an increasingly sprawling online destination.

Already we spend what is an unnatural time on this one website (10.5 billion total minutes per day on the site in January 2012, that’s circa 12.4 minutes each before you exclude fake Facebook accounts). Google used to want to get us off their site as soon as possible; Facebook wants is the opposite.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting our eyeballs, of course, but the Facebook feed has become a compromise for a billion people with content as diverse as photos, updates, tweets, blog posts, Zynga updates and Nike Fuel band scores.

Our Facebook feeds are descending into MySpace-esque cascades of silly photos.It’s no longer a very compelling stream of content.

We’re so early in the life of the social web that Facebook, while already struggling to transform from being a “web” desktop company into a true “mobile” orientated company, will need to shed its skin once again – and probably sooner rather than later – in order to become to the social web what Google was to search.

I may of course be too early to market with this prediction (something I’ve been sadly all too prone to), so the weight of these words depends on how fast mobile, web and social apps, along with the associated consumer behaviour, evolves.

But I believe it will accelerate further still.

I’ve met Mark. He’s smart. I’d be amazed if he wasn’t very aware of all this. But will he be able to turn the juggernaut fast enough without it jack-knifing? He himself has admitted in interviews that he missed the boat on mobile.

It is very hard indeed to change the heritage of a company at scale. IBM succeeded only by amputating its entire physical body and becoming a focused services head.

And most companies fail to truly reinvent themselves. Microsoft missed out on the internet and has been playing catch-up ever since. Google missed out on social. And Facebook, as just mentioned, nearly missed out on mobile, but may have scraped through.

(The jury is still out and I’m unconvinced only because mobile is still so early, with true critical mass of smart phones yet to hit.)

The next cash cow will be whatever is invented for social, to be what AdWords was to search. These ads will be all about understanding who we are and what we are doing: true behavioural advertising.

Today’s vast social data silo – Facebook’s alone runs to the 100’s of petabytes – can provide this deep insight from which Facebook could profit, much like my own start-up is trying to.

But truly contextual advertising is notoriously hard to do. And the danger is that Facebook is too busy driving people to (and worrying about the design of the newsfeed, fixing their iPhone app or just dealing with the sheer weight of serving their destination website with data, innovation and support needs) to capitalise on Facebook’s real crown jewel: the social network itself.

This, by the way, is a fact Twitter is currently failing to realise also, as it busily cuts off its developer nose to spite it’s data silo face. All in a race, presumably, for more control, which it hopes will equal more revenue.

If you own the social connections and the communication between people, you own the knowledge. Through data mining, you can turn this knowledge in to the wisdom of intent and other new-fangled behavioral analytics. In the age of data overload, context and understanding equals hard cash.

You don’t need a walled garden to have a bumble bee pollinate a flower. In fact, if one flower is inside the garden and one outside, the wall simply hinders the bee in its process of pollination.

To complete the metaphor, you actually want a garden with as few walls as possible.

Andrew J Scott is co-founder of The Taploid