Why Facebook's Network Effects are Overrated
A lot of people interested in free software, and user autonomy
and network services are very worried about Facebook. Folks are
worried for the same reason that so many investors are interested: the
networks effects brought by hundreds of millions of folks signed
up to use the service.
Network effects -- the concept that a good or service
increases in value as more people use it -- are not a new problem for
free software. Software developers target Microsoft Windows because
that is where the large majority of users are. Users with no love for
Microsoft and who are otherwise sympathetic to free software use
Windows because programs they need will only run there.
Folks worried about Facebook are afraid for similar reasons. Sure, you
can close down your Facebook account and move to Diaspora. But who
will you talk to there? You can already hear people complaining about
Facebook the same way they've been complaining about Windows or Office
for years. People feel that their hands are tied and that their
software, and their social network, will be determined by what everybody is
I'm worried about Facebook. But I'm not too intimidated by Facebook's
network effects for two reasons.
First, using Facebook doesn't preclude using anything else.
Twitter has enormous overlapping functionality with Facebook.
Sure, people use the systems very differently. But they both ask you to
create lists of friends and followers and are designed around sending
and receiving short status
messages. Millions of people do both and both systems are
thriving. For the millions of people who use both Facebook and
Twitter, the two services have had to negotiate their marginal utility
in a world they share with the other one. People decide that Twitter
is for certain types of short messages and Facebook is for others. But
these arrangements shift over time.
And the relationships between services aren't always peaceful coexistence.
Remember Friendster? Remember Orkut? Remember Tribe? Remember
MySpace? MySpace, and all the others, are great examples of how
social networks die. They very slowly fade away. MySpace
users signed up for Facebook accounts and used both. They almost never just
switched. Over time, as one platform became more
attractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention and
activity shifted. People logged in on MySpace less and Facebook more
and, eventually, realized they were effectively no longer MySpace
users. Anyone that has been on the Internet long enough to watch a few
of these shifts from one platform to another knows that they're not
abrupt -- even if they can be set in motion by a particular event or
action. Users of social networking sites simply don't have to choose
in the way that a person choosing to boot Windows and
I'm sure the vast majority of people with Diaspora accounts use
Facebook actively. This is not a problem for Diaspora. It is
how Diaspora -- or whatever else eventually achieves what many of us
hoped Diaspora would -- could win.
Second, Facebook is for the ephemeral.
Facebook is primarily used for information that was produced very
recently. This week if not today. If not this hour.
Facebook has an enormous amount of data that users have fed it that
may be hard to get out and move somewhere else. But most people don't
care very much about having any regular access to the large majority
of this information. What people care deeply about
is having access to the data that they and their friends created today. And
that data can just as easily be created somewhere else tomorrow. Or,
with the right tools, created just as easily in both places.
Compare this to something like Windows where moving away would require
learning, converting, and perhaps even writing, new software. Perhaps even in
new programming languages that most developers don't know yet. Compared to
Windows, a migration away from Facebook will be easy.
Facebook's photo galleries are an example of an important place where this
holds less well. Social network information -- i.e., the list of who is friends
with who -- is another example of something that is persistently
valuable. That said, people really enjoy the act of finding and
friending. Indeed, this process was
part of the initial draw of Facebook and other social networks.
None of this means that Facebook is over. It doesn't even mean that its
ascendancy will be slowed. What it does mean is that Facebook is vulnerable
to the next thing more than many technology firms that have benefited
from network effects in the past. If users are given compelling reasons to
switch to something else, they can with less trouble and they will.
That compelling reason might be a new
social network with better features or an awesome distributed architecture that
allows freedom for users and the ability of those users to
benefit from new and fantastic things that Facebook's overseers would never let them have and without the things Facebook's users suffer through today. Or it
might be a sexier proprietary box to store users' private information.
It doesn't mean that I'm not worried about Facebook. I remain
deeply worried. It's just not very hard for me to imagine the end.
Syndicated 2012-06-04 01:44:48 from Benjamin Mako Hill