Michael Wolff, USA TODAY
The media business eats itself. General-interest magazines, national television networks and all-purpose portals are always succeeded by an ever-narrower special-interest approach. This has tended to happen over a reasonably long span of time, a generation or two, but in an ever-quickening world, the term du jour is the "disassembling" of Facebook, which, arguably to its detriment, has just added its billionth monthly user.
Not only is Facebook challenged by its inability to grow advertising revenue fast enough -- the primary culprit in its 50% share-price plunge -- but now it's facing a carve-up of the social experience.
This is not just by the high-fliers in its space, Twitter and Linkedin -- themselves in danger of fragmentation -- but by an ever-growing assortment of specialty players.
This is happening by demographics: Path, for instance, targets an upscale, executive, familyish, yuppified niche. It's happening by interest: ArtStack focuses on art and taste as the common thread. There's gender: Luluvise and SkinnyScoop. There's format: Pinterest. There's video and audio: Viddy and Just Sayin'.
Path was started in 2010, by Dave Morin, an early Facebook executive, and seems, in a deliberate fashion, out to fine-tune and correct Facebook's flaws. Most obviously, it's a mobile application. It limits your circle of friends to 150, reinforcing exclusivity and all but eliminating the Facebook dross and cacophony. It applies the kind of design that instantly makes Facebook look like it's of a former generation. Most of all, it highlights its technology and tools, because it's less about media and more about communication.
Crucially, Path addresses what is turning out to be Facebook's deepest flaw -- the difficulties of selling advertising. Path isn't trying to. Its model is to sell functionality. It will, in the future, offer a platform of tools that, beyond the basic service, can be purchased and upgraded, including photo and video filters, advanced network management tools and Dropbox-like sharing capabilities.
ArtStack is similarly looking to use social as a transactional rather than advertising platform. A Pinterest for high visual culture, it hopes to use its vertical interest to not just undermine Facebook's horizontal community, but also to create a marketplace that bypasses galleries, dealers and auction houses (always a prime candidate for disintermediation).
Even vertical networks that focus on advertising surely offer a much more targeted and high-value audience than Facebook's Interstate highway experience.
Facebook's main business premise has become, like the handful of other Internet survivors, the Hail Mary route of growing so big so quickly that its vast industry footprint and installed position will keep others from being able to compete with it. While that's worked for Google and Amazon, it has not for Yahoo and AOL.
For Google and Amazon, the more they do their job, the more they standardize it, the better they do it. But Yahoo and AOL are focused on sensibility -- where standardization and its inevitable blanding down motivates customers to search for something more particular and personal.
Facebook is in the experience business. It has certainly proven the concept of social -- redefining how users expect media to work -- without owning it, except by achieving ever-greater critical mass.
Curiously, critical mass used to be the sine qua non for a social business. Social only worked if you could count on finding people you know and having a social experience. But critical mass, especially in a world whose very point is to be ever-more personalized, inevitably becomes dilutive.
Facebook is cookie-cutter-ish. Facebook is boring. Facebook verges on the totally square.
It's something to rise above -- to aspire out of. Facebook is ... MySpace.
Helpfully to everyone else, Facebook offers its central asset, its critical mass, to anybody who wants it. Every other social experience or enclave or niche (we need a word to specify a refined social network) gets a jump-start by issuing automatic invitations to its new members' Facebook friends.
Message: Come on. We're outta here. There's someplace cooler.
Facebook has built a platform that allows other people to start more intimate, personalized, targeted networks. But that facilitation isn't Facebook's business, at least, it's not the one they envisioned. And they have no way, and seem to have contemplated none, for making money off it. (They did retrofit a business model to profit from Zynga, but now Zynga is suffering from overexposure.) Nor, in a world of many sliced-and-diced networks, all of which will be accessible, will this necessarily be a long term advantage.
Facebook's flaw is that it has always thought of itself as a data company. By facilitating a set of orderly interactions, it would garner exclusive information that would give it valuable insight into people's behavior. It would eventually know so much about you that it would be able to tell you, with ever-increasing certainty, who should be your friends.
Perhaps never has there been a lamer misunderstanding of social interaction. Or maybe it's the classic nerd misunderstanding: that you can learn social ease and nuance.
Our social lives surely offer unique commercial potential if they can be defined, narrowly cast, targeted and very meticulously catered to.
Which is everybody but Facebook's business opportunity.