Is Facebook vulnerable?

27 Jul 2010|Lee Shupp

The New York Times ran an article over the weekend asking whether Facebook is a utility or not. While Facebook is fun, I don’t think that it’s important enough to qualify as a utility. But I do think that its low ratings on the American Customer Satisfaction Index suggest that Facebook is vulnerable, and does not have the power or lock-in that many believe that it does. Here’s why:

First, a quick recap of the article. Facebook signed up its 500 millionth active user last week, an impressive number for sure. At the same time it was cited as one of the least popular private sector companies in the US. These two seemingly contradictory facts sparked the comparison to a utility- something that you value and have to use, even if you don’t like the monopoly that provides it. Like danah boyd (one of the smartest social computing experts I’ve met) I don’t like my utility companies very much. And like many Facebook users, I’m not wild about the company, with it’s continual shifting of service terms and its tendency to be on the wrong side of privacy (public unless you opt out, rather than private unless you make public).

Many believe that Facebook is so ubiquitous that its destined for dominance, and it’s clear that Mark Zuckerberg has ambitious plans to become integral to the Internet. But myspace looked pretty dominant for a while too, and look what happened. People migrated to Facebook because it was much easier to use, and it emphasized user experience over advertising revenue. Myspace was painful to use, and advertising got in the way of pretty much anything that you tried to do.(Much like trying to watch the Olympics on NBC.) Facebook understood that, and designed a much stronger alternative. (By the way, I still have three accounts in limbo on myspace, as do many other people I know.)

I still think Facebook is vulnerable, for several reasons:
Lack of a strong brand. I don’t know what Facebook stands for, and I don’t trust it. Shifting service terms, wriggling on privacy, and the looming temptation to monetize all that data make me worry that I’m much more the sum of my data than a customer that Facebook cares about. So far Facebook hasn’t done anything really bad with my data (that I know of) but they clearly don’t think about my privacy the way that I wish they would. Facebook has a huge opportunity to build a brand that people trust.

How to manage all those friends. Google usability researcher Paul Adams has an outstanding presentation on the “Real LIfe Social Network” that shows why Facebook’s friends model breaks down in real life. The argument is simple: in real life people tend to have 4-6 different social networks comprised of less than 10 people. While some people cross networks, generally the networks have different things in common, and different interests, so most people manage them separately. I constantly worry that someone from one of my networks may make a comment that is perfectly kosher in one network, that might be taken out of context by another, creating offense. I want to manage my different social networks differently, yet Facebook insists that they all have to mash together. I’m forced to manage this pretty crudely, by ignoring friends requests or unfriending people, sending messages of rejection that I do not intend, because I enjoy these folks in other contexts. I’m told that it’s possible to create subgroups, but this is not easy or intuitive to do.

With low customer satisfaction, Facebook is vulnerable to the next great idea, the next social networking tool that provides a better, more unique experience that allows people to manage their social networks much like they do in the real world, with subtlety and nuance. Facebook has the incumbent’s advantage, and the power and resources to make some needed changes, so it may continue to dominate. But I don’t think Facebook dominance is a given by any means.

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