There were two distressing cases in Ireland recently of young girls who took their own lives after cyber-bullying. Both cases emerged after they had been exposed to the online behaviour on ask.fm, a social networking (Q&A, really) site that allows anonymity and has been taken up in great numbers by teenagers here. When the first case happened, journalists tried to trace the company, but it was difficult, as it was snarled up in a web of offshore instruments and complex arrangements. The site has been soaring in recent months, yet remains very small in terms of staff – ten people, no more. It is particularly strong in non-English speaking countries, and countries where anonymity is useful. My first question was “who is ask.fm?!” Now, just hold that thought.In Africa, there are well over one hundred social networking sites being used, many of them mobile. In Brazil, Google’s Orkut is the leader in social networking, while Windows Live Profile has 34m users in South America. Baidu dominates China. Wikipedia’s inexhaustive list of social networking sites is staggering, while its list of defunct sites does not take into account those that are moribund or on life support. Think of MySpace, Bebo, where are they now?
So Facebook may have a great marketing machine, but it’s got serious challenges ahead. Much of its rise was attributed to Zynga, who are in serious troubles of their own, with many condemning them as a one-trick pony doomed now to a slow death by class-action lawsuits from disgruntled shareholders. Farmville was not replicated, and social gaming may turn out to be transitory and weak as an attachment mechanism, keeping “customers” on Facebook. Other one-hit wonders abound – Rovio and Angry Birds, Omgpop and Draw Something, Newtoy and Words with Friends. The last two were both bought by Zynga, but Omgpop is slipping into the cold dark night, while two years of “with friends” clones has become stale really quickly.
Recently, a Czech blogger acquired a million Facebook email addresses from an online source for the princely sum of $5. He contacted Facebook, who asked for them back. They also asked that he destroy the originals, and, rather awkwardly, not to speak of this to anyone. Facebook put this “breach” down to scraping, the act of automating scans of public Facebook pages for publicly posted materials, and harvesting them into a database somewhere. So it wasn’t a disclosure of private information, but an enthusiastic (if automated) reading and recording of public Facebook pages.
Facebook was not amused. ”We have dedicated security engineers and teams that look into, and take aggressive action on reports just like these. In addition to the engineering teams that build tools to block scraping we also have a dedicated enforcement team that seeks to identify those responsible for breaking our Terms and works with our Legal team to ensure appropriate consequences follow.” Essentially, it’s ok for people to read Facebook public pages, just not so many of them all at once in an automated way. I wonder whether “terms” apply to non-members reading public pages?
Bogo’s response (he being the Czech blogger) was lovely. He suggested that he might delete the emails in a similar way to that which Facebook uses to delete accounts when people click the “delete my account” button. Which as we all know, is to not delete the account. Of course he deleted them anyway – Facebook has many lawyers who know lots of synonyms for “disembowel”.
All together, here’s what I’m seeing. Kids are not using Facebook any more – their parents are on it, for goodness sake! Genuine engagement is weakened as a result, regularity of use is compromised, and “customer” relationships weaken. Channel options are enormous – the extent to which “customers” can do social networking on the Internet is massive, and there are so many technology challengers as well as platform challengers, it’s hard to see how Facebook can retain dominance. Gaming is fragmented, based on luck. And success is brief. The extent to which Facebook is desperately protecting customer data – notwithstanding the fact that it is public – is astonishing, and will be enormously expensive internationally.
The only hope for them is in mobile. They bought Instagram, would they buy Whatsapp? Recent results were positive, and no company has really managed to understand and conquer mobile. The ask.fm office has a quote from Einstein on the wall – “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” If Facebook could do that for the cellphone, then maybe. But my bet is that they won’t.
Just like Bebo and MySpace before them, they will be usurped by a young pretender, and the corporate churn will go on. Their IPO flop really took the wind out of the sails of social networking, and in my view it was because of the transience of these plays, and their lack of substance. They need not only to discover substance, but sustainability.