My thoughts on Facebook's relevance

We’ve all seen the statistics and anecdotes about how today’s youth are leaving Facebook in favor of Vine, Instagram, and Snapchat. Facebook, to them, is no longer cool. Anecdotally, my older friends also report that there is some lost novelty to sharing their life on their timeline. As one of my summer roommates Leo put it, “I feel like an attention whore when I post a status, so I don’t really do it anymore.” What does this mean for the future of Facebook?

In my eyes, not much; Facebook has several things going for it that give it more longevity than other social networks.

I’m going to ask you to forgive the sloppier-than-usual writing style here, as I’m just trying to get some thoughts down on paper in a somewhat coherent manner.

Photos

Facebook’s strongest asset, in my opinion, is the amount of photos it hosts. Photo albums represent, to so many people, years of great memories. This isn’t something I usually hear about when people defend (or attack) Facebook, which is why I feel obligated to bring it up. Facebook, whether knowingly or unknowingly, ameliorated photo albums via tagged photos and comments. Photo tagging destroyed the previous barrier that a person’s photos had to be from their own camera. Comments took off on Facebook and often give photographs a life of their own beyond the memories the photo captured.

Frankly, those of us that have been on Facebook for 5 or more years — mostly current college students and recent graduates — have most of the important photos from their life on Facebook. There’s currently no easy and well-known way to export and save these photos (a cursory Google search shows that a few tools exist for this, but they’re not widely known). The convenience of having all photos on Facebook is key; one of the biggest complaints I remember about Google+ when it came out was that one effectively “lost” their photos as a switching cost.

To current users, Facebook can co-exist with Instagram and Snapchat. I personally use the latter two services for dumb snapshots, whereas I take photos on Facebook more seriously. I suspect that this stigma exists for most other people. Of course, this means that the photo switching cost is a non-factor for younger users; they don’t have photos on Facebook to preserve in the first place.

The reason that Myspace didn’t have this switching cost was primarily because Myspace limited the number of photos you could host. I vividly remember belaboring over which of my 20 photos to delete so I could upload a newer one. Thus, as Facebook became large, people saw no reason to not switch over.

Ultimately, a social network that figures out how to grab and re-host photos from Facebook can cut one of its legs out. But without that, Facebook’s currently active users have no incentive to switch without effectively losing most (if not all) of their photos from the last 5+ years of their lives.

Chat

The reason that I stopped going on AIM was that everyone I wanted to talk to was on Facebook Chat. Facebook has shown that users will take a buggy chat experience with 99% of their friends over a smooth chat experience with some less-than-supermajority of their friends — hence why AIM fell.

I submit that some sort of instant messaging is here to stay for a long time. It offers users speed over text messaging and easy multitasking ability (Alt+Tab to Facebook, send message, Alt+Tab back to whatever — as opposed to picking up the phone to send an SMS), while preserving the ability to delay response to a message. (Voice and video chat offer speed but lack convenience and temporal benefits.)

The prevalence of Facebook Chat is a function of its active users, so this is more a secondary effect of the staying power of Facebook photos. However, given the superiority of instant messaging, Facebook Chat prevents early adopters from switching social networks; why make the switch if I won’t be able to talk with my friends?

The easiest way I can think of to circumvent this would be maintaining dual membership until a critical majority of your friends switch to a new chat service. I remember maintaining dual membership on Myspace and Facebook for about six months while I waited for latecomers (although I did essentially let my Myspace become dormant during that time period).

Parting thoughts

I think there are plenty of reasons that a given person may want to leave Facebook, from spammy applications to a newsfeed with an unacceptable signal-to-noise ratio to seeing frustratingly annoying shared image memes. However, as much as people complain, I feel confident that photos and chat are both competitive advantages for Facebook. To reference The Social Network, the reason that Facebook works is because everyone you care about is on there.

I’m definitely interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Feel free to leave a comment or hit me up @maxscheiber!