Is the collapse of Facebook inevitable?

Spring 2011

I was looking at the traffic stats for MySpace the other day and like most commentators I couldn't help but notice that the decline of the former market leader in the social networking appears to be accelerating.

A little research into the history of social networks over the past 15 years suggests that they collapse far more quickly than they are created. So it is probably time to ask the question is the collapse of Facebook inevitable? and, is it actually possible to build a social network that is immune from collapse?

The commentary surrounding the rise of Facebook and the fall of MySpace provides interesting background reading when consider this question. Needless to say much of the commentary falls into the category of Op-Ed rather than statistical inquiry but it is well worth a read.

Perhaps the most interesting idea is the one expressed on Quora that MySpace UX represented a higher level of self-expression while Facebook's UX is more standardised. Which could be interpreted to mean MySpace's UX was more Tribal or individualistic. Facebook's more standardised, sanitized and corporatized... and by extension being more corporate makes it feels safer. MySpace offered the old Wild, Wild Web experience. Facebook the new safer corporate web experience.

Within this scenario the disruption equation becomes MySpace = Unsafe. Facebook = Safe.

Another take is the idea that MySpace focused on special interests (i.e. Content: Music) while Facebook focused on relationships (i.e. The Social Graph).

Others simply talk about Facebook having a vision while MySpace "Simply threw whatever they could find against the wall to see what stuck". This I find interesting because it suggests that, at least in the case of MySpace, the much praised "Fail Fast, Fail Often" innovation mantra proved to be a game changer for the wrong side. It is better to do an Apple and forget the competition and just deliver what you think the market needs. So who's right? or, are they just discussing the symptoms rather than the root cause of the failure of yet another online social network to sustain itself more than 7 years.

Do we need to be asking different types of questions to explain why social networks collapse? For example could it simply be a direct manifestation of 3, 5 or even 7 year itch? Could it just be a simple case of relationship curation burn out? After all it doesn't take long for the member's home page to become a collection of yesterdays rather than a collection of tomorrows. It doesn't matter if the page is a collection of relationships or content. Both items inevitably suffer the same fate over time. In the end the users abandon their digital nests because they become bored with yesterday and decide to go in search of tomorrow. Hence cascading failure is the inevitable end game for all social networks no matter how big they become at the height of their popularity.

It would appear to be self-evident that Social Networks are at risk of rapid collapse through Cascading Failure (i.e. one or more of the high-capacity nodes catches a cold (i.e either becomes bored and gives up, suffers congestion failure (i.e. cannot process all the relationships in a timely fashion) or discovers a new alternative) and this creates a viral reaction (i.e. Chain reaction) that kills off most, if not all, of the other nodes in the network.

However there is a growing trend towards users being members of multiple social networks. For example, you can find prominent digital personalities and socialites operating across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. So does this strength in numbers, this cross-pollination of networks, make the individual networks any more stable?

Apparently not. If anything, as this study on the fate of networked networks published in Wired last year demonstrates, it makes the connected networks more susceptible to epic failure. In the study, the researchers connected two of these networks. While many node failures were required to crash the networks when they were independent, a few failures crashed the networks when they were linked. This suggests that when the current crop of power users or, more importantly in the case of Facebook, the girls grow tired of their digital nests on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn then there is a high probability that not only one but all of the popular social networks could dramatically collapse very, very quickly.

Food for thought perhaps for all those eager investors in today's "booming" social network and social media properties?

Today I suspect the key to understanding the problem of social network longevity is simply the fact that Information Technology (i.e. The Database) renders Relationships - just like Content - Meaningless.

You and your friends (i.e. followers and followed) become just tables - or in most cases merely a table - in a database. From there you and your relationships become just a question of curation across the endless lists of likes.

This of course represents something of a paradox because, as anyone versed in Social Network Theory will tell you, the potential value of the Social Network resides in your ability to monetize the Social Graph (i.e the Relationships embedded within the network).

Take a look at any Social Network today and the focus is on expanding the number of relationships across the network. Twitter, LinkedIn etc are in the business of offering you new contacts to follow or old contacts to get back in touch with.

The monetization formula is very simple. Expand your personal network and you expand the value of the Social Network (i.e. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) exponentially.

But what if this idea is fundamentally wrong. What if by expanding the network with increasing weaker and weaker ties and links you create a network that becomes so fragile it inevitably collapses under its own weight of meaninglessness?

"We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all... [So] In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone." - William Deresiewicz - Faux Friendship

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