Can Anything Stop The Facebook Juggernaut?

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So. Facebook. $35 billion valuation; 600 million users; 25% of all US Web traffic — and all that with fewer employees than Google has job openings. The inventor of the World Wide Web recently warned that the web may be endangered by Facebook’s colossal walled garden. A Google engineer was recently paid $3.5 million to not jump ship to work there. Facebook seems an unstoppable juggernaut. And I kind of want them to die.

Not because of their policies. They’ve been reasonably sensitive to their users’ wants, and willing to admit when they were wrong (remember Facebook Beacon?) There have been worrying signs of late, for example, their two-faced attitude towards data portability and their trademarking of the word “Face”, but I don’t (yet) object to what they do.

I dislike Facebook because they’re mediocre. They have a platform and opportunity unlike anyone else, ever—and what have they done with it? Nothing. None of their so-called innovations are actually even remotely so. Copying Twitter was smart, but hardly new; ditto Foursquare. They called Facebook Groups an innovation; it’s a basic feature they should have implemented years ago. Now they’re laughably trying to claim that integrating email into their messaging system is a world-shaking revolution.

As usual, William Gibson put it best: “Facebook feels like a mall. Twitter feels like the street.” (Which I suppose makes Zynga the mall’s arcade.) It’s one thing to shop there occasionally, but quite another to be a full-fledged mallrat—and according to the stats, that’s what we have collectively become. I want to believe that eventually we’ll wake up, and grow up, and realize that new and interesting things mostly happen elsewhere.

And so, I speculate hopefully: what if Facebook is the new LiveJournal?

You might not remember LiveJournal, a now-moribund social-blogging site, but Mark Zuckerberg does: the second scene in The Social Network depicts him liveblogging a hacking jag on his LiveJournal. (Unlike much of the movie, that scene is mostly true-to-life.) I was on LJ too, back then, mostly to keep track of my California friends while I was bouncing around the planet. Now their accounts add up to a ghost town—and while most have moved to Facebook, they’re far less active there. They’re not alone: LJ’s own stats indicate that while their userbase has grown, total user activity has actually declined.

What if LJ’s decline is a warning bell for Facebook? What if the natural human tendency is for people to initially get all excited and obsessed about social networking—but eventually, after a few years, they grow increasingly bored with it, and begin to slowly drift away?

This is a testable hypothesis. The key stat is the relationship between how long one has been a Facebook user and how much time one spends on the site. Only Facebook knows those numbers, though, and they aren’t talking. Until they do, I could cling to that hope . . .

—but here’s the kicker; it doesn’t even matter. Facebook still can’t be stopped.

Even if my apocalyptic prophecies of a global surge in enlightened self-actualization come to pass, and our collective Facebook obsession begins to fade, it will remain a mighty titan. For Mark Zuckerberg remembers LiveJournal too, and he and his braintrust have already ensured that Facebook will remain indispensable even if their users begin to lose interest.

It isn’t just a site any more: like Amazon or Google, Facebook has become a utility. That’s not a metaphor. The number of apps and sites that rely on Facebook Connect and its Graph API is skyrocketing, according to all the startups/developers I know (and, heck, here’s some actual data too.) Even once-mighty MySpace surrendered to Facebook Connect last week. Google’s half-hearted attempts to forestall them are too little, too late.

Facebook has become to the social web what Microsoft is to the desktop: mindbogglingly gargantuan, relentlessly mediocre, and almost inescapable. Like Microsoft twenty years ago, they will succeed because a bad standard is better than none: and like Microsoft ten years ago, they “innovate” by clumsily copying—and then trying to squash—the real innovators.

So let the backlash boom! Maybe it will finally spur Zuckerberg & Co. into doing something genuinely interesting and innovative with their invincible machine.

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