Will Facebook Be the Next MySpace?

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Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last week, you've probably noticed that Facebook has made a few teeny, tiny little changes… Maybe you've noticed from seeing them on your own Facebook profile, but it's just as likely that you picked up on these alterations from the hordes of angry users screaming, “Bring back the old Facebook!”

Of course, Facebook has the right to make any changes it deems fit, and it's likely that most users will pipe down and accept the new format in a few weeks time. But it is possible that this latest round of revisions – which, by and large, don't seem to offer anything new or useful to the user experience – could alienate fans and push Facebook into the dreaded MySpace territory? Let's consider a few things…

First of all, it's worth remembering that the widespread reaction of frustration regarding Facebook's changes isn't just a bunch of whining. There's actually a psychological reaction to change that takes place, given the time and energy users must invest in relearning a tool they previously found satisfactory. As Zack Whittaker, writing for ZDNet, points out:

“When a radical change is made to something ‘already useful', but does not fundamentally change the experience, people rebel – and they rebel quickly.”

Millennials and younger generations who see technology as second-nature will be able to adapt more quickly, but Facebook's recent expansion into Generations X and Y, as well as the Baby Boomers, puts it at risk of abandonment from users who have

But even if these older generations are willing to invest time in relearning this new setup, it's also worth mentioning that what we're seeing right now – a News Feed populated by both “Recent Stories” and “Top News” articles, as well as the first introduction of the Ticker – is only a single stop in a line of changes that represent the biggest facelift Facebook has seen since its inception.

At the F8 conference, held on September 22nd, Facebook titan Mark Zuckerberg announced even further changes that will be coming to the world's largest social network over the next few months. Of these changes, the most interesting will be:

  • The debut of “Timeline” – The profile page, as we know it, is out, and Timeline's in. The Timeline will perform like a scrapbook and present a condensed version of your history on Facebook (versus only your most recent history). While real-time updates will be relegated to the new Ticker, the Timeline will provide a chance for users to craft a clear message about who they are and what matters to them.
  • Increased permissions and functionality given to Apps – Facebook Apps will be more integrated into the new Timeline than ever, allowing your friends to see – up to the minute – what you've been watching on Netflix or Hulu or listening to on Spotify. You'll also be able to use these apps from within Facebook, creating a “closed garden” effect where you're accessing the web without ever leaving your profile.
  • More real-time sharing – The introduction of the Ticker and the increased permissions given to apps means that every single action a user takes will be broadcast in real-time. As Liz Gannes of AllThingsD notes, “It's not hard to imagine Facebook sharing more than doubling after the f8 launches. Millions of tiny little actions are going to move from implicit to explicit.”

Assuming this current vision for Facebook's future pulls through despite what are sure to be numerous privacy challenges, the result will be a totally new Facebook. While some users will welcome and adapt to these changes, others will be left wondering why the company can't stop fixing things that weren't broken in the first place.

Well, keep in mind that what was working for users wasn't necessarily working for Facebook, who has two major concerns – managing the data capacity needed to allow 800,000,000 users the opportunity to post status updates about changing their socks, and keeping advertisers happy with the quality and amount of data they have access to in order to better tailor their promotions.

The introduction of Timeline should help to minimize the amount of data stored on user profiles by presenting a compressed view of a person's time on Facebook, versus a constant stream of updates. And there's no doubt that advertisers stand to benefit from increased app usage and better visualization of the information a user finds relevant.

As Douglas Rushkoff notes in an opinion piece on CNN's Tech Blog:

“Facebook's real customers are the companies who actually pay them for this data, and for access to our eyeballs in the form of advertisements.”

Of course, this statement has been true since Facebook first realized that it could cash in on its massive stores of personal data with personally-relevant advertisements. Surely the more widespread recognition that Facebook's true concerns lie in maintaining profitability and pleasing advertisers isn't enough to cause a mass exodus a la Myspace in the late 2000s?

That's hard to say, although it's certainly no coincidence that on the day Facebook rolled out the widespread changes that whipped its users into a frenzy was the same day that Google's Plus social network opened its previously “invitation only” doors to the world.

Truly, Facebook's biggest competitor in the social space – the one that could doom it to the same fate as Myspace or Friendster – is Google's recent entry to the social networking market. Although adoption of the network hasn't been widespread yet, there's growing evidence that this is changing. Anton Perlkvist, a noted Swedish technology entrepreneur who likened the new site to a “house party with no alcohol” little more than a month ago, recently revised his past statement, saying:

“Update: it's improving. A lot. Things are happening. NOW.”

And it's true – Google+ does have a number of advantages over Facebook, including ease of use, enhanced privacy controls that put Facebook's numerous stumbles in this area to shame and sharp integration with Google's search services that give users more flexibility in finding and sharing recommended content.

But at the same time, it's important to remember that many of Facebook's 800,000,000 users have invested significant time in the site in terms of connecting with friends and building their profiles. It's one thing to complain about changes that the network has made to its platform – it's another thing entirely to abandon that effort and start fresh on a new social media site.

So although there are a number of variables that aren't clear yet – including when the next wave of Facebook changes roll out, how well they're received and how well privacy concerns are handled – it's safe to say that Facebook isn't in any danger of going under, given the level of investment of its users and their reticence to change. However, the key to ensuring a mass exodus to Google+ doesn't occur will be to put a greater emphasis on helping users to understand the benefits of future updates and rollouts.

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