I have long predicted the end of Facebook. As always with futurism, predicting ‘what’ is easier than ‘when’, and I’ll admit, I’ve been surprised at the network’s longevity and adaptability.
Through smart acquisitions and constant innovation, Mark Zuckerberg has plotted a route to survival and incredible scale for what remains the world’s number one social network. People questioned the platform’s ability to adapt to mobile, but it has thrived. It has found routes into countries with even limited internet infrastructure. And it has learned to monetise the incredible amount of traffic it receives, and the personal data it collects. Most surprisingly it has recently taken a decision that might negatively affect its short term revenues in favour of building sustainability through greater customer engagement and satisfaction.
But I still say that, eventually, the day will come when Facebook is outpaced. When it fails to spot the incoming changes with sufficient alacrity, and is left to fall by the wayside.
How will this happen?
Facebook has survived by being extremely cognisant of the threat it faces: disengagement from the young. Once this key taste-maker group shifts, the rest of the market will follow within a few years — as will advertisers, keen to reach young spenders. Both anecdote and research suggest this is already happening. Knowing this, Facebook acquired some of the likely destinations for this flight — Instagram and WhatsApp — and adapted their features to replicate the best of the other options. Facebook now owns three of the top four, and four of the top seven social networks by active user.
At the same time, obvious competitors to Facebook have made a series of serious mis-steps: Twitter’s lack of clear direction and failure to deal with abuse; SnapChat’s distraction into physical product and failed interface redesign.
The result is that Facebook as a company has entrenched its hold on the current generation of social media — at least in northern/western markets. Displacing it will require both great timing and creativity, but also an external disruption creating a new opportunity.
The first disruption was mobile: if SnapChat or Twitter had executed flawlessly on mobile, or Instagram chosen to remain a challenger, we could have seen a very different social landscape now. The next disruption will also likely be around the primary hardware through which we interact with our social networks.
It looks unlikely to be voice assistants: it’s hard to see voicemail re-invented as a social network in a very visual age. Though there might be an opportunity for audio-stickers — sending your friends funny sound effects or altered audio through this network of devices.
Instead the hardware shift that might create a crack in Facebook’s defences is augmented reality. The company is well aware of this and has been investing in AR for some time, building up strengths while the phone is still the platform, but aware that one day there will likely be a shift to a wearable system.
But these transitions are always tricky, especially when an established business has a portfolio to defend. New entrants can create a pure, powerful offering that captures the zeitgeist, and if they choose, remain independent long enough to challenge the incumbents.
This is what happened to Kodak. And one day, Facebook will have its Kodak moment.