In the case of every social network, there is only one true law: Community is like oxygen; population is essential to exist. With that in mind, the cause of death of any social network seems intuitive: People stop going one place and start going someplace else. The motives behind those migrations can come down to a number of factors, but the primary one seems to be functionality. As Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams told the Los Angeles Times last year, “The real reason that Friendster got supplanted by MySpace in the U.S. was that MySpace’s website just worked and Friendster’s didn’t.”
It goes beyond functionality, though. Often, a social network’s failure can come as the result of mismanagement or an unclear creative vision at the upper levels.
“If you get tied up looking at your competitor, you’re going to lose,” says Ethan Bloch, co-founder of social media marketing platform Flowtown (and creator of the “2010 Social Networking Map” that accompanies this article). Here, Bloch is specifically addressing how MySpace lost its momentum, and subsequently its user base, to Facebook. According to Bloch, MySpace didn’t have a strong set of core values, and that led to its eventual demise. “There’s never been this strong visionary leader attached to [MySpace] saying, ‘This is what we do, this is the direction we’re going in.’ So when you get to a point where you’re just bleeding users, if you don’t have a reason to exist, how do you even fight that?”
According to Clive Thompson, columnist for Wired and media/technology writer for The New York Times Magazine, that bleeding is perhaps the only predictor of a social network’s eventual (and often immediate) death: “The indicator tends to be when suddenly everyone starts using something else,” Thompson tells the Press. “The indicator is the moment when you begin to see the flight… So sometimes you can’t really tell until you see it suddenly, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, everyone’s using x, y, and z, I guess I’ll go use it.’”
That’s certainly what happened to Keith—and millions of others—when it seemed that “everyone” was “suddenly” using MySpace instead of Friendster—and then Facebook instead of MySpace. But what then happens to a social networking site after the circus has left town?
“It dies on the vine,” says Bloch. “It becomes something called ‘the walking dead,’ where they’re around, and they have some traction, but they’re not growing. They may be generating some form of revenue and they may even be profitable, but there’s no growth left in the network. There’s some sub-segment of people who are still on the network and still like it, but that’s really it. It becomes a ghost town.”
On Friday, Oct. 1, a movie called The Social Network will open in theaters nationwide. The film tells the story of the rise of Facebook and Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg. That title—The Social Network—is descriptive yet deliberately vague: It can be read to mean numerous things, but the definite article—the word “the”—is especially important here, now. Because Facebook is the social network. At this moment, nothing else even comes close. Nothing ever has. Says Bloch, “There has not been a broad-based social network even comparable to Facebook up to this point.”
However, even that may be understating the case: By some factors, it might be said that there has never been any website comparable to Facebook; there may be no single comparable community in history. On any given day, Facebook garners more page views than any site on the Web—the only thing that gives it any real competition is a site called Google.com (the two are in a day-to-day battle for most-trafficked site on the Internet). Approximately 550 million people have Facebook profiles right now—which breaks down to about one in every 13 people on the planet. As tablets and smart phones gradually come to replace desktop computers as the people’s hardware of choice, and as the Web itself becomes more localized, Facebook becomes more important, more heavily trafficked and more ubiquitous. Some of that is a result of good timing and luck, but it is not an accident.
“They’ve executed so well at every stage of their company’s growth, and they’re always willing to take a massive risk and piss off 50 million people to propel their product to the next generation,” says Bloch of Zuckerberg and Facebook. “I remember in 2006, when they introduced the News Feed [a what-are-you-doing-now feature on Facebook user pages], everyone threw up their arms and said, ‘This is terrible. This sucks.’ But the change that they were willing to push forward—even though initially it was going to piss people off—really led to a stronger network, and more engagement and interaction.”
Thompson more or less concurs: “People claimed the death of Facebook many times,” says the Wired columnist. “[For example, people said], ‘When you let parents on, that’s gonna kill Facebook.’ That hasn’t happened yet.”
Still, like Keith, both Bloch and Thompson remember the old landscape all too well, and they know that while Facebook is an empire, all empires must eventually fall. As much as Bloch respects Facebook’s business model and creative integrity, he allows that, “As long as the Internet remains open, there is always opportunity for someone to challenge anyone.”
Thompson, meanwhile, points out the necessary and inevitable peaks and valleys with which any business—and technology—must contend.
“I don’t think the landscape that we see now is static,” he says. “You know, people used to think that Microsoft was going to run everything until the sun exploded. Now they’re sort of struggling: ‘Please, pay attention to us! We’re still relevant!’ They obviously own the industrial market—if you have a company you buy Microsoft stuff to run your company—but they’ve completely lost their toehold on the consumer market and the popular imagination. That’s all owned by Apple and Google and those folks.”
Furthermore, Thompson believes Facebook could one day soon look the way Friendster looks right now.
“I think it’s entirely likely that Facebook could be gone in five years,” he says. “These things always change and move on, usually in ways we can’t predict. The reason why you can’t see the end of Facebook is we can’t figure out what the next thing that’s gonna happen is. We’re not gonna figure it out until someone does it.”