Facebook is an incredible thing in many ways. It has over a billion people on it--a reach unlike anything in the social software space we've ever seen. The numbers of photos uploaded, likes per second, page views, etc are absolutely staggering. Its sheer growth is truly an accomplishment.
Yet, when I think about its impact on our lives and what it enables people to do, I can't help but be underwhelmed. What do we actually do on Facebook? We don't meet new people. We don't create anything.
For the most part, Facebook is a mirror. We're watching ourselves and our small little worlds getting reflected back at us--and hopefully getting signals from others of their acceptance. It's like a reality television show where you watch your own life and those of the people you already know.
In the grand scheme of the continuum of existence--how long can that last? How much of an impact can that actually have?
With Twitter, I discover. I follow people I don't necessarily know and get inspired and informed. With Instagram (a FB acquisition, but not part of the core experience) I create and get inspired. My Instagram photos are probably the most creative digital things I've ever done. Vine, for lots of people, is similar.
Google is my connection to everything--it feeds me information--answers just about any question I might have. With Google Apps, I run not only my business but my non-profit kayaking group on it as well. I connect to and meet important business contacts on LinkedIn. Dropbox is where I keep my important files in the cloud. Even Youtube is more than just a site full of funny cat clips. There are people running TV shows on it--creating inspirational and impactful content on its platform. Wikipedia is probably the greatest thing humans have ever collaborated to produce online.
Facebook, on the other hand, isn't the origination platform of much of anything.
Facebook, despite the fact that I use it everyday, is probably the online network I could most easily do without. It provides me the least amount of critical and impactful value--and it feels like, compared to a year ago, it provides less and less value because of its efforts to monetize.
Despite everything it theoretically knows about me, Facebook ad units disrupt my feed. They are glaringly in the way, lowering the quality of the signal even further. They do not inspire me and they interfere with the social signals and information I get from my friends. When I see a friend like a new band, it's somewhat interesting information. When I see a Facebook friend like Delta airlines, I'm left to wonder whether they really like Delta or whether or not Delta held some contest to give away free airline tickets to one random liker. That dilutes the value of the like signal and of Facebook itself.
Facebook used to have network pages where you could explore people you didn't know. Joke all you want about "poking" but for college kids, for a time, Facebook was actually a way to meet new people. Now, they made it terrifically hard for people who don't know you to contact you. Despite the fact that strangers can be annoying, it's actually the networks that involve strangers that provide some of the most important value to people. OKCupid and Match provide lots of value to folks--taking strangers and turning them into life partners and parents of your children. That's kind of important to some people. Same with LinkedIn. Today's strangers on LinkedIn are tomorrow's standout employee, new business partner, biggest investor, or new boss.
We don't want vacation pics from strangers, but strangers play an important role in our online existance.
If you surveyed people forty years ago, at the dawn of the internet, and asked them, "If you could connect a billion people with a piece of software, what could you enable them to do?" I'll bet you they would sound pretty ambitious and optimistic. They'd probably talk about world peace, global education, or solving tough problems in the environment. Telling the world you like Pepsi or giving a thumbs up to photos of the high school friends you haven't seen, don't really care about, and would otherwise never really thought of again would have probably been pretty far down the list. Playing casual games certainly wouldn't be up there either. In fact, I think people from the past would look at the internet at large as a pretty amazing ecosystem where lots of inspiration and social good has happened, but I don't think they'd have much of that to say specifically about Facebook.
Facebook may be a terrific business and it certainly is a terrific technical accomplishment, but I don't personally find the core product any more inspirational than Yahoo!, which also is a top five most visited internet destination. Just because something gets used a lot doesn't mean we'd be that much worse off without it. If we didn't have American Idol or Dancing With the Stars, we'd just have some other crappy variety show--and Facebook feels much the same way to me.
Extrapolate that out to the long view, and you wonder what Facebook is 5, 10, 20 years from now. Is it just the next Yahoo!--a lot of traffic and some ads to support it? Should tomorrow's Yahoo! be worth $80B+ in market cap today?