The last decade has seen many social-networking sites rise and fall like little empires. Will Facebook follow, or is it here to stay?
Over the past decade-and-a-half a variety of social-networking sites have risen only to fall shortly thereafter. Friendster is shorthand for this cycle but it's not alone: Geocities, SixDegrees, MySpace, and LiveJournal followed similar trajectories. After a period of dominance, their empires ended with the barbarians at the gates. Some of those communities still exist today, but in diminished incarnations.
One site has defied this pattern: Facebook. Standing head-and-shoulders above every other social-networking site by pretty much every metric, Facebook now defines the genre. Even the words "social networking" seem less descriptive of the activity they represent than a synonym of that singular brand.
In the early years of Facebook it seemed that it too would someday end up like Friendster, a period piece that we would forever associate with a particular time in the Internet's history. But something has changed. Has Facebook's scale reached a Gladwellian tipping point of no return? Is it time to revise the assumption that another network will someday rise in Facebook's place? Is Facebook here to stay?
Of course, making these sorts of predictions is a parlor game: Almost any prediction you make rests on analogies no one can be sure are relevant, or impressions of the future no one can test. Nevertheless, curiosity impels an effort.
Facebook may be forever for a few reasons, only one of which is the sheer number of people -- 140 million Americans -- on the site. That's a much larger percentage of Internet users than any other site has attained, as you can see in the chart above. And it's not simply the size of Facebook that matters, but who Facebook has reached. It's no longer the early adopters or even the second- or third-wave joiners. Facebook is now an Internet home to some very late adopters -- such the people who have not and will not leave Yahoo!, AOL, and Hotmail for Google's web services, and many of the Internet's 65-and-older population, who now make up 6 percent of Facebookers. These people matter to the site's staying power more than the early adopters for a simple reason: If a new site comes along, sure, I'll check it out. But if I want to be in a social network with my mom, my aunts and uncles, some professors from college, Facebook is going to continue to be the place where I can find them.
The other reason is the site's archive of our lives since we joined. The permanence of these memories on the site may unnerve some people (as well it should), but it is also a feature: The collection of those memories is hard to give up. When I've thought about canceling my Facebook account for one reason or another, the thing that's stopped me is the access to years of photos of me and my friends and family, the notes and messages we've written, and the connections -- however thin -- to people I've long since fallen out of touch with on every other mode of communication. Were I to join a new site, I would never have the nerve to "friend" (or whatever the equivalent of that is in the future) the people from high school, college, and long-ago travels who currently appear among my Facebook friends.
There are still reasons Facebook could falter: If it fails to adapt to changes in how we live over the next several decades or if its recklessness with users' privacy becomes intolerable. But both of these seem unlikely causes of Facebook's demise, for different reasons -- the former because Facebook has shown itself to be capable of adapting, as in its quick assimilation of smartphones into its reach, and the latter because it seems that people's tolerance for Facebook's recklessness is quite high, at least when weighed against what they like about the site and what they feel like they would lose by leaving. Or perhaps kids of the future just won't want to join a site their parents have already conquered and claimed as their own. Who knows. But that doesn't seem to be deterring them yet.
The thought of an everlasting Facebook provokes discomfort. We don't like monopolies; we are unhappy with Facebook's willingness to commercialize our online lives. But the paradox of our discomfort is this: Our discomfort grows commensurate with Facebook's power, such that the more that Facebook is indispensable, the greater our discomfort, and yet the less that discomfort matters.
Facebook may have achieved some degree of staying power but that doesn't mean it will be alone. It is the central hub of our social networks, the place where they all meet. But thousands of smaller ecosystems can and do exist alongside it -- Goodreads for bookworms, CafeMom for moms, VampireFreaks.com for goths, LinkedIn (with its 82 million uniques) for professional networking. In a way, it's these niche sites that are a testament to the health of the Internet, more so than the size and dominance of Facebook. Even if Facebook is for forever, it will not be for everything.
Social-networking sites are fragile, as MySpace and Friendster proved. Unlike Yahoo! and AOL, whose users can get more or less the same experience if there are millions of others like them or if they are the last ones on Earth, social-networking sites can shrivel quickly if the perception rises that people are leaving. But even if Facebook does someday flag, its reach and its repository may mean a different kind of decline than those of the social networks before it. Those houses, once abandoned, fell apart. But Facebook may be more like the house you moved out of when you went to college -- a house you still stop by to check in from time to time, see how the neighborhood is doing, say hi to old friends. It's no longer where you live, or the place you call home, but it's never quite gone either.
Image: Alexis Madrigal.