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Facebook Opinion Piece

This first appeared on the opinion pages of The Melbourne Age

EVERY now and then the living are lucky enough to find themselves at the dawn of an epoch. This feeling was palpable in the late 1990s as our best and brightest burned off down the then-potholed information superhighway.

Despite this, a web-based company called Hotmail launched its email service in July 1996 and by December 1997 boasted 8.5 million users – a stunning achievement for the time. Hotmail was the be-all and end-all in web-based email and everyone had a Hotmail address.

Not surprisingly, the big money wanted in. Microsoft moved fast in late 1997 with a cool $US400 million offer that Hotmail’s young guns couldn’t refuse. But, as we know, history has a way of not panning out how it ought, and Bill Gates and his merry men found that Hotmail turned out to be a storm in an IT cup.

Within a few years it would be swamped by a rapidly fracturing, ever-expanding marketplace. Yahoo!, Gmail and numerous other young punks moved in. Hotmail tripped over and never really got back up.

Its legacy, however, has proved important. Hotmail introduced us to the wonders of web-based email; allowing businesses to offer it to staff and opening them up to 24/7 access without training and re-skilling.

And therein lies the lesson for devotees of Facebook. At present, Facebook is how most people engage in social networking online but, if history is anything to go by, it will be a footnote. In other words, its ultimate contribution will be like Hotmail – an instructive force that showed businesses how to integrate social networking techniques into their solutions.

Facebook is literally a phenomenon, a business for its time; a web 2.0 icon that has gathered a staggering 200 million users in less than two years. As the world’s fourth most popular website, it uploads 14 million photos a day. Its users have generated $230 million in ad revenue this year, and it is popular with kids. A recent US college student survey named it the second-most popular ”thing” (it tied with beer and was just beaten by the iPod).

But stay still too long in the fast-changing ether world of the WWW, and you’ll turn to stone. Already other social networking sites are making big inroads into Facebook’s iconic status. There’s Badoo in Europe, with more than 37 million users, Friendster in South-East Asia with 90 million, LinkedIn (which is mainly for business users) with 43 million and the Google-owned Orkut, already well established in India and Brazil, with 67 million users.

Today Facebook is already seeing off the competition, having just bought FriendFeed, which has long been a geek destination in the vein of Twitter. Management has made noises about synergies and plans to incorporate FriendFeed into operations, but from a distance it looks more like a defensive play.

As for those in business wanting to hitch their horses to the Facebook wagon, remember MySpace? Rupert Murdoch bought it for more than half a billion dollars four years ago and now it’s a shadow of its former self.

Anyone with kids will recall that a year ago they were on that thing 24 hours a day creating elaborate fonts, uploading pictures and downloading whatever. Today, MySpace is yesterday. And therein lies another lesson for business: we can no longer assume people who generate content are a stable property and attribute any kind of permanence to their behaviour.

While incorporating Facebook into a new business model may be understandable, in the long term, it’s an impermanent proposition. Sure, Facebook has shown us that giving people a voice in content production is a great, cheap way to foster brand loyalty, but why give away all your traffic to it? You worked damn hard to get it in the first place, so invest in doing it yourself.

Meanwhile, Facebook has a few problems of its own – privacy and confidentiality issues, intellectual property issues and identity fraud, just to name a few. Italian soccer hero Alessandro Del Piero is suing it over a fake profile bearing his name that links to neo-Nazis, and workplaces like the NSW Department of Education and Training, have banned it. Students and youth groups are also claiming that the transient friendships it offers are damaging teenagers’ ability to connect in the real world, leaving some traumatised and even suicidal.

Then there’s the simple issue of Status Update Exhaustion. Of Facebook’s 250 million registered users, 30 million update their status at least once a day in largely narcissistic fluff. Frankly, who cares if the new kitten has learnt to climb the couch or that you just burnt the rice?

Just when you thought that was enough, along comes Twitter, with its even more inane tweets that lead many of us to the conclusion that too many tweets make you a twat.

There is no doubt we are moving towards a more participatory culture online. However, as social networking features are integrated and offered by newer, cooler players, Facebook will loose its alpha status and businesses that tied their fortunes to it will be left looking for the next big thing.

More and more users will also demand some sort of editing of the white noise of web 2.0 as they seek a blend of social and mainstream media. Google has launched Google Wave (basically Gmail on steroids), a meld of email, social networking, instant messaging and document collaboration; while Microsoft’s coming release of Outlook 2010 is geared to mimic social networking. Meanwhile, Email 3.0 is coming and bringing with it an inbox mix of social media, instant messaging, text messaging and news-feed widgets.

The beat goes on. Footnote anyone?