The Decline and Fall of the Facebook Empire

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Tech

Friday morning I thought my Internet connection had been disrupted. My Facebook home page looked all wrong and surely, I thought, Facebook wouldn’t have tried yet another unwelcome “update.” After expectantly refreshing the page a dozen times, however, I discovered I was wrong; America’s favorite social networking site had been ransacked once again by it’s own revision-happy programmers.

Like all Facebook revisions, this one has sparked a fair number of “change things back to the way they were” groups. And, like all revisions, this one will remain in effect whether people like it or not. Still, the Facebook execs’ indifference doesn’t mean that disgruntled users aren’t right: many of the changes genuinely aren’t particularly intuitive or logical. For example, users can now see a “Live Feed” that includes real-time information about friends’ activities, or a greatest hits-esque “News Feed.” Just who determines what makes it onto the News Feed is unclear but, in my case, switching between the different feeds produced two very different lists of information. Consequently, I now have to click back and forth to avoid missing something or, more likely, simply get used to the idea of missing stuff. Unfortunately, both options are annoying and dubiously mitigate old problems by adding complexity.

At the core of this latest revision (and all the others), however, lay much bigger questions about Facebook’s continued relevance and ubiquity. Of course, the site has a lot going for it: an easy interface, the largest network in the U.S., and outreach to new demographics. Still, it remains to be seen just how long people will stick with a social network. I remember when everyone I knew was on MySpace, for example — and I also remember when everyone I knew left MySpace. In the time since, MySpace has fallen so far that an insultingly mediocre movie like He’s Just Not That Into You can make fun of it and Glee seems immediately passé for using it as product placement.

Facebook’s frustratingly frequent revision cycle seems like a desperate attempt to avoid a similar fate. When Twitter started siphoning people away, Facebook responded by becoming more Twitter-like. Now, as that situation has begun to reach equilibrium, Facebook is backpedaling, apparently having realized the value of offering a unique product.

Yet, despite all these attempts, Facebook does in fact seem to be going out of style, if not out of business. The media has been making much ado about the recent surge in older users and, while I’ve appreciated connecting online with my parents (and even grandparents), I’m not sure that entices younger users to sign in more.

To be fair, Facebook is in some ways better suited to an older demographic. People with stable careers and families can use the site with less fear that past embarrassment will become public. In my case, however, I remember recently being glad that I didn’t have pictures online with old girlfriends, hairstyles, or my generally dorkier past. In that sense, older users whose associations change more slowly have more to gain and less to lose through social networking.

Still, these demographic changes aren’t always welcomed by long-time users and sometimes have exacerbated annoyance with recent infrastructure problems. Why, for example, does my inbox keep telling me I have messages, but then not letting me see the text of those messages? Why haven’t I been able to do a mobile upload since a week after I linked my phone to my account? Why am I locked out of some friends’ pages one day, but not the next? None of these glitches have proven fatal, but taken together they represent a sloppier site populated by people I don’t really care about. That’s hardly a winning recipe.

Consequently, just as Facebook has added millions of new members to its ranks, others have become less active. I was even surprised recently at how many of my own friends aren’t really signing in anymore. When that happens, I lose interest and Facebook loses potential ad revenue. It’s a lethal combination and one that has left the company struggling to adapt without looking lame or un-hip.

Of course, Facebook is far from dead. Waiting for a movie to start this weekend, I was surprised that one of the “First Look” commercials actually directed people not to the product’s website, but to the Facebook fan page instead. That sort of publicity proves that Facebook is continuing to adapt and persuade people that it matters. Nevertheless, the company is treading new water and will have to balance a capricious market that becomes more annoyed each time the site tries to get cooler.

Jim Dalrymple is a pop culture correspondent for Rhombus. Follow him on Twitter @jimmycdii.



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