Why Facebook’s Network Effects are Overrated :: Copyrighteous

A lot of people interested in free software, and user autonomyand network services are very worried about Facebook. Folks areworried for the same reason that so many investors are interested: thenetworks effects brought by hundreds of millions of folks signedup to use the service.

Network effects — the concept that a good or serviceincreases in value as more people use it — are not a new problem forfree software. Software developers target Microsoft Windows becausethat is where the large majority of users are. Users with no love forMicrosoft and who are otherwise sympathetic to free software useWindows because programs they need will only run there.

Folks worried about Facebook are afraid for similar reasons. Sure, youcan close down your Facebook account and move to Diaspora. But whowill you talk to there? You can already hear people complaining aboutFacebook the same way they’ve been complaining about Windows or Officefor years. People feel that their hands are tied and that theirsoftware, and their social network, will be determined by what everybody isdoing.

I’m worried about Facebook. But I’m not too intimidated by Facebook’snetwork effects for two reasons.

First, using Facebook doesn’t preclude using anything else.

Twitter has enormous overlapping functionality with Facebook.Sure, people use the systems very differently. But they both ask you tocreate lists of friends and followers and are designed around sendingand receiving short statusmessages. Millions of people do both and both systems arethriving. For the millions of people who use both Facebook andTwitter, the two services have had to negotiate their marginal utilityin a world they share with the other one. People decide that Twitteris for certain types of short messages and Facebook is for others. Butthese arrangements shift over time.

And the relationships between services aren’t always peaceful coexistence.Remember Friendster? Remember Orkut? Remember Tribe? RememberMySpace? MySpace, and all the others, are great examples of howsocial networks die. They very slowly fade away. MySpaceusers signed up for Facebook accounts and used both. They almost never justswitched. Over time, as one platform became moreattractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention andactivity shifted. People logged in on MySpace less and Facebook moreand, eventually, realized they were effectively no longer MySpaceusers. Anyone that has been on the Internet long enough to watch a fewof these shifts from one platform to another knows that they’re notabrupt — even if they can be set in motion by a particular event oraction. Users of social networking sites simply don’t have to choosein the way that a person choosing to boot Windows andGNU/Linux does.

I’m sure the vast majority of people with Diaspora accounts useFacebook actively. This is not a problem for Diaspora. It ishow Diaspora — or whatever else eventually achieves what many of ushoped Diaspora would — could win.

Second, Facebook is for the ephemeral.

Facebook is primarily used for information that was produced veryrecently. This week if not today. If not this hour.Facebook has an enormous amount of data that users have fed it thatmay be hard to get out and move somewhere else. But most people don’tcare very much about having any regular access to the large majorityof this information. What people care deeply aboutis having access to the data that they and their friends created today. Andthat data can just as easily be created somewhere else tomorrow. Or,with the right tools, created just as easily in both places.

Compare this to something like Windows where moving away would requirelearning, converting, and perhaps even writing, new software. Perhaps even innew programming languages that most developers don’t know yet. Compared toWindows, a migration away from Facebook will be easy.

Facebook’s photo galleries are an example of an important place where thisholds less well. Social network information — i.e., the list of who is friendswith who — is another example of something that is persistentlyvaluable. That said, people really enjoy the act of finding andfriending. Indeed, this process waspart of the initial draw of Facebook and other social networks.

None of this means that Facebook is over. It doesn’t even mean that itsascendancy will be slowed. What it does mean is that Facebook is vulnerableto the next thing more than many technology firms that have benefitedfrom network effects in the past. If users are given compelling reasons toswitch to something else, they can with less trouble and they will.

That compelling reason might be a newsocial network with better features or an awesome distributed architecture thatallows freedom for users and the ability of those users tobenefit from new and fantastic things that Facebook’s overseers would never let them have and without the things Facebook’s users suffer through today. Or itmight be a sexier proprietary box to store users’ private information.It doesn’t mean that I’m not worried about Facebook. I remaindeeply worried. It’s just not very hard for me to imagine the end.

“I’m worried about Facebook. But I’m not too intimidated by Facebook’s network effects for two reasons.

First, using Facebook doesn’t preclude using anything else. [..]
Second, Facebook is for the ephemeral.”

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