Why Facebook Will Disappear (and Google won’t) in the Social Internet

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
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Jeremiah Owyang and Charlene Li have pointed down the shadowy pathway towards the future of social computing, and not surprisingly they see Google: “Revealing Google’s Stealth Social Network Play.”

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn today look and act like first stage examples in any communications revolution–much like 19th century daguerreotypes were staged like paintings, or radio shows in the 1920s sounded like Vaudville or TV shows in the 1950s that looked like radio shows.

The central, organic problem Facebook and these other early social networks have is that they are  closed and imitative and have no real barriers to competitors who are more innovative.

These can’t be the mature forms of the social Internet can they? Will we seriously see Twitter or Facebook 20 years from now as dominant as say, Google?

I don’t think so.  These early social networks work because they have enough structure, purpose and word of mouth to gather a large audience–each ahs created a socil “center of gravity.”

But the lesson of Facebook’s dismantling of MySpace should be very instructive. Why did Facebook eclipse MySpace? Three reasons, all of which seem very small to me:

1. MySpace was perceived to be overrun with young teen-agers wanting to hang out and act like college kids. Hence the college kids moved quickly to Facebook as it grew.

2. Older adults liked hanging with the college crowd, so they went to Facebook for their first personal social network experience.

3. The MySpace UX was like walking through a very messy 14 year olds bedroom. Facebook at least was cleaner.

Does Facebook now have a center of gravity sufficient to act as a true barrier to entry to other encroaching social networks? My thought is “probably,” but only so long as the name of the game that Facebook competes at is being the best closed social network.

But what if Facebook and Twitter wake up one day and the business model of the closed social network is simply irrelevant? What if we can get all the social connection and networking we want on our own?

In the final analysis Facebook has only two assets: a toolset and a center of gravity. The toolset is practically the same as any other number of social networks, so the only competitive advantage Facebook has is the center of gravity–that people are in the habit of signing up for Facebook.

When you think about it, these are the same two assets that Yahoo had when it ran the search market. And it lost out to Google in a few years when Google totally eclipsed the Yahoo toolset. The center of gravity was gone in a trice. Now Yahoo (and MySpace) hold on to audiences who just have the habit and bookmark of coming to those sites—but those audiences are drip, drip, dripping away.

The “social media” revolution is actually a skirmish in the much larger revolution called the Social Internet.  Over the next ten years the Social Internet will appear.  It will be created as we use ubiquitious broadband, persistent connectivity, and low-cost/no-cost tools to find and connect with whomever and whatever we want.

The formal, larger social networks that exist ten years from now will be sustained for one of three reasons:

1. Formal commercial gatherings for business purposes — healthcare professionals exchanges and middle school teacher collectives rather than LinkedIn

2. Powerful toolsets that are real barriers to entry — networked SaaS for graphic designers or financial planning services.  (The problem these networks will face immediately is an “arms race” with other networks)

3.  Compelling networks based on content and interest — sports fans, intellectuals, Baptists, or outdoors people.  (Think about the magazines and cable channels that sustain themselves well and this is the direction these will come from)

Google?  They’ll be in the business they’ve always been in, which is helping you find—find information, find products, and find people.  They’ll also slowly grow into the business of keeping you connected and communicating,  which is where there tool strategy is going.

I keep thinking that at $500 a share Google is an expensive stock.  That may be true,  but 10 years from now I think it will be far, far more valuable than any Facebook stock from an IPO would be worth.

The Social Internet will thrive because of connectivity, search and tools.  And that’s Google’s business model now and for ever more.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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