The most important thing to understand about Facebook is that it can’t lose. It has, and it will, and sometimes it should. But it can’t.
Facebook, to Facebook, isn’t a service, or a site, or an app, but an internet. It’s imagined internally as the next internet, where the connective tissue is people rather than content. This is the closest thing Facebook has to a unifying mission statement (or, as people in the Valley would call it, earnestly, a “vision statement”).
As Facebook passed 500 million users, then a billion, it seemed to be coming true. Facebook began co-opting the rest of the internet without even really trying: It became, by sheer force of user numbers, a destination for things it wasn’t originally imagined for. It started as the most popular profile site, then became the most popular photo site, then a dominant “content” outlet. The mission statement became a worldview. The vision became dogma. Planet Facebook became, to Facebook, the center of the solar system.
Facebook’s complete change of perspective coincided with its IPO. It was during the run-up to Facebook’s public offering that Zuckerberg told investors the following:
We make decisions at Facebook not optimizing for what’s going to happen in the next year, but to set us up to really be in this world where every product experience you have is social, and that’s all powered by Facebook.
Facebook has continued to grow since. But other services have grown faster. Facebook’s response, from its new, privileged perspective, has been to behave with a mixture of jealousy and ruthlessness. It blatantly ripped off Snapchat with Poke, which was a flop. It responded to the rise of messaging apps with a messaging app of its own, which was a success. It released a clear Instagram rip-off, which was a failure, before buying Instagram. Today, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom took the stage to give an uncharacteristically forced and wooden speech about a new video feature in his app. The invitation to the event said, “A small team has been working on a big idea.” Systrom’s script included, more than once, the phrase, “This changes everything.” The app, in every important way, resembles Twitter’s suddenly popular Vine.
The differences: Videos are longer, there are filters, and there’s an image stabilization feature. It’s Vine+, or Vine 2.0. Instavine. Indeed, Vine can and probably will add at least some of these features, which Vine’s founder teased yesterday. (It should be noted that Vine borrowed liberally from Instagram in terms of design. But its core concept — short, sequentially edited mobile video, executed well — was theirs.)
As if to justify his baldly hyperbolic statements, Systrom explained that he was excited because “130 million people on day one are going to have access to video in the way that they have access to pictures,” which both explains why Facebook supremacists have a point and demonstrates what they don’t understand: that a large audience doesn’t turn someone else’s idea into a big idea, and it certainly doesn’t make it yours.
This represents Facebook’s biggest and most perplexing problem: supreme self-confidence uninhibited by extreme myopia. It’s why it released Home, a product that anyone outside of Facebook, down to a normal user, could have realized was a flawed idea. It’s why Facebook treats users’ data as if they have no choice but to stay — and why it interprets growing user numbers as permission to keep doing what it’s doing, but more aggressively.
Another way to interpret this: Facebook is out of ideas. In its view, nobody else can truly innovate, because without Facebook, an innovation doesn’t matter — an idea isn’t a big idea until it’s on Facebook, the real internet, with its billion graphed-out users. Facebook’s own innovations, like Graph Search, are limited by the same skewed perspective; they’re all based on the premise that people want more Facebook.
Journalists have long joked about how The New York Times responds to a scoop it didn’t get: either by following it and pretending it’s the publication’s own, or by publishing a story designed to take the wind out of the original story’s sails. In media terms, Facebook is the website of record. Nobody else gets scoops.
Even more, it resembles the bizarre and lucrative start-up “copycatting” trend, in which non-American investors take ideas that are successful in America and brazenly replicate them in non-English markets, that has made entrepreneurs the world over unimaginably rich (though from the perspective of Facebook, the flow is reversed — the outside internet is the rest of the world, and Facebook is America).
Instagram video will be popular because Instagram is popular; unlike Poke, Instagram video will inherit its user base. This will also mean that Instagram video will make a lot of money. It’s certainly intended to: The first Instagram video most journalists saw today was a Lululemon ad, below.
For the user, though, the calculation is different. As we experiment with new apps, new sites, and new ways of using the internet, Facebook is reverting to an old form: It’s not home, it’s a destination. Which makes co-opted features and copied ideas seem less like friendly natives, or even transplants, than like hostages — abductees, beamed up to Planet Facebook.