Internet

Can Facebook Save Face?

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The reach and impact of social media today means that not only have your elderly grandparents heard of it, they post on Facebook more than you do. Over the past 10 years, the Connectivity Revolution unleashed a new era in how people unite with friends, family, and the wider world – and in how brands converse with their customers.

Yet Facebook, the social media veteran that led this metamorphosis, is now struggling to keep afloat of the cultural zeitgeist. Since 2011, its Cultural Traction has tumbled a mighty 25%, putting it a far cry from its former trailblazer status.

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So what happened?

It’s to be expected that once the novelty wears thin, usage becomes less exploratory and more functional. Facebook’s largely unchanged core user experience has stopped exciting people the way it used too, becoming an integral – but mundane – part of daily life. As with one’s calendar, there’s a sense of obligation to check it. What a handy way to remember birthdays in lieu of sending a card. A quick scroll registers your nephew’s swim trophy, a co-worker’s trip to Switzerland, your friend’s new beer brewing hobby, a pregnancy announced – enough proof for future encounters that you’re tuned in to those who matter.

But where has all the “juicy stuff” gone? The normalizing of Facebook brought etiquette and a mostly universal sense of do’s and don’ts. Public bickering, provocative photos, signs of an affair, and controversial stances have gone underground – to other social media exchanges where aliases, temporality, and stimulating content rule. Dislike.

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Meanwhile, Facebook has encountered challenges.

It draws on-going criticism for a perpetually-changing and – at around 9,000 words – extensive privacy policy. In a post-Snowden world, this matters more than ever to the average consumer.

Ironically, Facebook’s user-created content seems to have a Big Brother, a puppet master of ceremonies. It’s been lamented for black-box algorithms manipulating users’ newsfeeds and determining which posts – and whose – appear, reappear, and disappear. Simultaneously, unsolicited ads and sponsored posts invade and clutter our personal Facebook spaces. And when we branch out to other online experiences, the price of entry is often unrestricted access to our personal Facebook accounts (and the accompanying data motherlodes).

That Facebook has quietly declared itself curator of our Brand Experience is not what users signed up for. Who sees what? Who is tracking us? Where is personal data going? How can we wrest control of our own newsfeeds? These mysteries have spawned wariness and confusion among consumers, and an uncomfortable sense that Facebook isn’t entirely transparent in the most transparent of public spaces, the social media universe.

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All of this feeds into Facebook’s bottom-of-the-pack score for ‘Inspiring’ – meaning that people don’t consider the brand one they’re “proud to be associated with”, or which “makes the world a better place”, or that they’d “follow into a new category”. Since 2011, Facebook has fallen a sizable 34% for this measure.

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Facebook clearly needs fresh ways to deliver its Brand Experience – and knows it. In recent years, the company has scurried to buy “the next big thing” – potential rivals – rather than channeling innovation from within. The widespread rise of the visual web and photo-sharing drove its 2012 Instagram acquisition. The shift in social communication from mass check-in to one-on-one and small group messaging eluded Facebook, despite its niche Messenger feature. But its February 2014 $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp indicates a determination to make inroads in the intimate connectivity space. In March 2014, Facebook announced the $2 billion acquisition of virtual reality start-up, Oculus Rift.

These moves suggest long-range strategic consciousness of the platform’s future, and indeed could prove truly visionary in the social media space. It remains to be seen whether it will be quick enough for today’s consumers.

Selling in good innovation will be the other critical piece. An exception to Facebook’s buy-to-innovate trend is Paper, an app from its in-house Creative Labs. Earning rave reviews from tech fans and journalists for offering a clean and intuitive, swiped-based platform for social and publisher news, the app stands out as a radically creative departure from Facebook’s core experience. However, nine months after launch it has failed to make real waves and its future may be in doubt.

There’s no question that Facebook enjoys a dominant position in consumers’ lives, with a remarkable 829 million average daily active users (150 million of which hail from the U.S. and Canada). But in a breakneck-paced tech world, consumers’ hunt for alternatives trumps loyalty, and the competition is lined up to steal the limelight. Pinterest and LinkedIn have ingrained themselves as flourishing contenders, while new kids on the block, Snapchat, Yo, and the simply-designed, ad-free Ello grab attention from news sites and discerning users.
Will Facebook join the ranks of MySpace, Napster, Friendster, Bebo, and Orkut? Or can it come face-to-face with cultural shifts, undertake a facelift, and do an about-face to recapture the imagination?