September 18, 2011
@ 07:39 PM

Yesterday I was reading an article titled Why Facebook is the New Yahoo by Mike Elgan which argues that Facebook adding features driven by its competition with Google+ “smacks of desperation”. The article’s core argument is excerpted below

The only way for Facebook (or any online service for that matter) to succeed is to re-invent itself. Facebook is scrambling to do so, trying this, trying that, desperately looking to thrill users with expanded engagement with existing social graphs. And Facebook has failed again and again.

Facebook tried to become the default e-mail client for members when it rolled out Facebook Messages, which enabled people to use a e-mail address. Remember that?

Neither do I. Nobody uses it.

Then Facebook saw that FourSquare and Groupon were gaining some traction with social location check-in and coupons, and so it launched Places and Deals.

Nobody cared, and Facebook killed both of them.

Facebook would get a huge boost from usage on tablets -- tablets and social networks were made for each other, because they’re both used in the same way at the same time (most heavily while at home during leisure time). Yet Facebook has failed to come out with a tablet app, even though the iPad shipped a year and a half ago!

Now Facebook’s desperate new strategy appears to be: Just copy Google+.

I always find it interesting that different people can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. The reason Facebook has 750 million active monthly users today and is widely presumed to one day get to a billion active users is because it constantly reinvents itself. The problem for authors like Mike Elgan is that Facebook has bucked the traditional narrative for big technology companies.

The tech press loves the innovators dilemma or disruptive technology narrative. Tech press loves to tell the story of a scrappy young company that comes from the blind spot of some big entrenched company to become dominant itself. They also love tearing down that same company a few years later when another scrappy young upstart shows up. This narrative is with us constantly; from Google’s social blind spot leaving an opening for Facebook to RIM being disrupted by touch-based smartphones with thriving app platforms. Even better for the story is when the upstart is a “web” company versus a bricks and mortar player such as Netflix versus Blockbuster.

The challenge for the tech press when it comes to Facebook is that the company deeply understands this narrative. After all Facebook was the usurper to MySpace in the classic tale of entrenched major player being disrupted by scrappy upstart. Facebook has their ear to the ground when it comes to potential usurpers and quickly moves to blunt their momentum often by what many have described as copying features. There are numerous examples of this including

The problem for tech watchers is that Facebook doesn’t let the innovator’s dilemma narrative get off the ground. Before too many could get hooked on social Q&A, check-ins or more interaction in the  news feed, Facebook made sure its users associated those features with their site. One could argue that the lack of mainstream penetration of Quora, FourSquare and FriendFeed is partially because the bulk of their offering is already available on Facebook so it’s hard to imagine how to argue to a mainstream user that you should use those sites when they already get that functionality on Facebook.

Therein lies the problem with Facebook. By definition, Facebook can’t go as deep on any of these scenarios as dedicated sites which means users are introduced to slightly watered down versions of a number of these new ideas as they have to still fit into Facebook’s site structure and core goals. However there’s just enough functionality provided by Facebook for people to either be satisfied with the experience (i.e. no reason to join FriendFeed when all of that functionality is on Facebook) or to decide they dislike it even if the feature doesn’t go as deep as it could (i.e. Facebook Places versus FourSquare). The latter is particularly pernicious because it means interesting new startup ideas don’t really get a chance to blossom before the mainstream is introduced to them.

I’m reminded a little of the world of RSS readers. A few years ago there was a lot of innovation in client RSS readers from commercial offerings like FeedDemon and NewsGator Inbox to home grown projects like RSS Bandit. However, RSS was eventually added to the big gorilla in client communication tools; Outlook. When this happened a lot of the innovation in this space dried up and it didn’t take long for Outlook to become the dominant RSS reader. This is despite the fact that Outlook didn’t go nearly as deep in the RSS reading technology it provided compared to dedicated RSS readers.

I see the same thing happening with Facebook when it comes to a number of social software ideas and it makes me a little sad to think about what we’re losing even though we are gaining the convenience of a one-stop shop for social.

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