If Apple stopped after its first good idea, Apple wouldn’t exist. Nor would most of the great old tech giants, nor any of the biggest internet companies: Yahoo wouldn’t be alive if it were still just Yahoo.com; Google would be in trouble if it had stopped at search. Nobody wonders why these companies looked for the next big thing. Facebook will too.
Facebook is incredibly large and still, by its own reports, growing. But few people believe that Facebook is the future of the internet — it may be an important part of it, but its chance to take it over completely has passed. Which leaves Facebook, just recently a publicly traded company, staring down a worrying, rarely asked question: What comes after Facebook, for Facebook?
Facebook the site and Facebook the company are, to most users, indistinguishable. But Facebook may be entering a period of immense change, which could pry site and brand apart. “The business is going from a major transition from desktop to mobile, and you’re seeing a generational and use-case fragmentation of social connectivity,” BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield says.
“On the desktop, they were a platform,” he says. “On mobile devices, they’re just another app. If their app becomes more interesting, they have to either create new ones, or buy new ones to keep people engaged.”
Every tech company has to face issues like this eventually, most multiple times. Apple, for example, managed its transition into a mobile device company, from a personal computer company, while also growing massively in size. Google has moved on from search, becoming, among many other things, the clear leader in the potentially lucrative mobile mapping market.
But while the internet moves fast, the world of social networking moves faster. Facebook, once a leader in almost every category it touched, now leads in almost none: It’s not the most exciting picture service, nor is it the next big messaging service, video service, mobile texting service, or news-sharing service. The only thing it definitely is is the leading identity service — something that a lot of sites are trying to take away from it.
“Online identity is under direct attack from Google,” says Greenfield, who sees Google’s service less as a social network than an identity layer — a hypothesis that explains why Google doesn’t seem to care that few use it to talk to their friends or share news, as long as they still sign up and sign in. With their invisible yet rich, real identity-tied, payment-processing identity networks, Amazon and even Apple pose a threat too.
Then there’s the issue of attention. Facebook has been, and still is, very good at getting people to spend a lot of time on its site — according to Facebook, its app logs more user hours than any other smartphone app. But winning users’ attention is not the same kind of fight as winning their allegiance for a specific type of service. Snapchat might not be a direct competitor to the Facebook app, but it’s drawing from the same limited pool of attention and time.
Early signs suggest that post-Facebook Facebook will be a company with the sole goal of taking back this attention. Its acquisition of Instagram, for example, pulled in tens of millions of existing, happy users and promised tens of millions more. But this is an expensive and difficult game, and one that companies typically play from a more established position (see: Yahoo and Tumblr). If this is the plan, says Greenfield, “the question is, should Facebook be far more aggressively using their currency — a very big market market cap — to acquire other companies?” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a Facebook that had not only taken over Instagram, but Snapchat and WhatsApp, which together would rival Facebook in size.
From a typical user’s perspective, the consequences of a post-Facebook Facebook would be swift and noticeable. A slow drift of attention away from the Newsfeed could turn into a cascade, leaving Facebook as an extremely well-furnished, but boring, trove of personal information. It would be in Facebook’s interest to make as much money from this as possible, despite a decrease in attention — it would be a large-scale attempt not just to monetize users that are there all the time, which is relatively easy, but the data they’ve left behind. Facebook wouldn’t just be a relative graveyard, like Yahoo Search, but your graveyard, and your friends’.
But you won’t care — at least, not much. If the post-Facebook Facebook has succeeded, you’ll be using another one of its apps or services. If it hasn’t, you’ll be using someone else’s. But according to tech’s one unbroken law — constant change — one of these days, you won’t be using Facebook.