Consultants, analysts and pundits come out of the woodwork and declare a tidal wave of change that never quite materialises. The proclamations are far reaching and impressive in their scope, and somehow two years later those same exhortations of future success disappear, never to be seen again.
No one actually goes back and checks past predictions versus current reality. Facebook’s latest announcements fit this description nicely. If the industry pundits are anything to go by Facebook is about to take over the world, somehow, although I’m not quite sure the manner in which they’re going to pull this off.
First off - there are a series of assumptions that pundits make that are far removed from reality. This is not limited to Facebook but generally applies to anything connected to the IT industry or the internet but usually reserved for the most “exciting” companies.
The most egregious and most laughable assumption is that everyone in the world is on the internet. This is not even close to correct. So you have the majority of the world that aren’t even aware of this phenomenon or may have heard of it but never used it. Apart from this, large swathes of the planet have massive bandwidth constraints and can only access a limited subset of the actual world wide web.
The second messy assumption is that there is this deep seated belief that those who do have access to the internet worship the internet. This is also not true. The internet has moved from being a novelty source of excitement to something that people use as a tool of convenience. People can read articles on the net, do their banking, update a status on their social networking site, book tickets for a concert or check the playing times of their favourite sports teams.
Some people have a very strong attraction to Facebook and spend a lot of time there. But how many? Facebook will happily tell you how many people visit their site (now around 400 or 500 million I think), but how many are very active? I for one and many of my friends will check Facebook once or twice a month. I hardly ever post anything onto Facebook and generally check on my friend’s updates to see what they’re up to. But it’s a casual visit.
As someone that is fairly ambivalent towards Facebook I am finding I like it less and less. I find the “Jenna found twenty squishy elves on her fairy farm!!” messages more and more annoying.
Targeted advertising is a source of immense excitement to anyone that has something to sell and it is definitely the Holy Grail to vast riches, or so we’re led to believe. The fact that these immense riches will be delivered to others and not to you and me doesn’t seem to strike the promoter of this “wonder” service as ridiculous when they promote it to us. I am so desperate for targeted ads it makes my knees weak.
Another big problem being created here is the casual attitude that Facebook is apparently taking with people’s private information. They are getting more and more invasive. Read this to see what is going on - it is not pretty. Somehow Facebook doesn’t seem to care.
One of the arguments that could be presented is that it is a free service and you should be grateful. Well when I signed up I believed that they would take care of the information that I am entrusting them with. This is no longer true. I feel that Facebook has broken my trust, numerous times now. They changed the rules without asking me. And “Yes!” I did expect my own personal individual expectations of privacy to be respected.
Another shockingly poor assumption is that all these knots of friends have everything in their lives in common. Apparently they like the same books, they go to the same restaurants, they drive the same cars, and they can give each other sagely advice at the touch of a button. The articles about Facebook generally contain sentences like this: “Next time you’re buying a car just let your Facebook friends know and you will get great suggestions.” or “wondering what book to read next? Ask your friends on Facebook!”.
I would never ask my friends for advice on what car to buy, I do my own research (on the internet, whoops! And generally I can’t afford the cars they drive) and none of my friends have the same taste as me in books.
There is some kind of sense of excitement and amazement that is brought forth in the articles about big IT companies like Google or Facebook. Both companies do great things but somehow that morphs from an opinion held by the general public like “a company that provides us with products or services that we enjoy” to “this company will own the future of the earth and you need to be there!” when communicated by an “analyst”.
Here are some examples from the article How Facebook's Newest Feature Could Change the Internet.
“Maybe this could pave the way toward true targeted advertising: browsing CNN on my smart phone in Dupont, a mobile ad pops up with a happy hour coupon for a restaurant I said I liked on Yelp.” [I don’t even know where Dupont is, and I don’t know what Yelp is either. According to people in the know, this is a crime.]
“Or imagine a better news aggregation site: a waterfall of links with all of the articles "liked" by friends who self-identify as conservative on Facebook.”
Seriously, how badly am I begging for a “waterfall of links” to land in my lap?! Please, I am begging here, give me my waterfall of links! Sometimes I worry that I’m the only one who has a BS-Meter that explodes when I hear something like this. But I don’t think I am. Most big companies seem to make the assumption that their customers are not intelligent but I think this is wishful thinking on their part. I think most people actually have a fair amount of common sense.
The latest announcement is that Facebook will be integrating with Microsoft’s Office suite. So you’re going to be editing documents on your Facebook account. This is supposedly a big threat to Google Docs. I don’t know how. Firstly this will be completely ignored by enterprises. There is just no way big business is going to ask their employees to place their documents onto Facebook.
How do you think a business will feel when they find out Facebook changed the privacy settings on their strategy and forecasting documents to make them public? Or how about sales breakdowns for their product range that they don’t normally make public? I am sure they won’t mind too much.
How many times do you think this will need to happen before businesses feel the risk is too great to even contemplate? I can already see Apple asking their employees to please store their new product design documents and spec sheets on Facebook.
So probably the only area where this is viable is in the consumer market. Is it going to take off in the consumer market? Well I don’t know but the biggest demand for Office suites is in the enterprise market (about 90% of Office sales are to business users according to an article I read by some “analyst” this morning) so the target market seems all wrong. I don’t think either Microsoft or Facebook believe this will take over Google Docs and put that product out of business.
The best that Microsoft can hope for is that it will slow down the adoption of alternative office suites and frankly there is no reason for Facebook to even care. I would think Facebook got paid something for including Microsoft’s offering and if it fails it will have no impact on them, there’s no downside for Facebook. If it’s a success then it will enhance their image but no one is going to judge them on the failure of some form of document editing software that they offer on their site.
As for Microsoft, they’re living in the hope that this new facility on Facebook will somehow put them into the cool gang. There’s no way that’s going to happen. The Bill Gates + Seinfeld ads from a few years ago are a perfect illustration of why Microsoft will never be a member of the cool gang. I think they’re the clumsy bully that can’t figure out why no one likes them.
So is Facebook about to change the world? I would answer with a resounding “No”. And yes, I do see the irony of ending this piece with a prediction.