Everybody seems to expect Facebook to die in the next few years. But there's a good chance it could outlast you.
Could your "Facebook timeline" one day include decades of status updates, and love letters from the boyfriend you dumped 20 years ago? We asked some futurists and experts to speculate on the future of what could become the oldest social network ever.
Social networks are impermanent
It's become a familiar ritual: Joining a new network. You start over from scratch, adding the same friends that you added last time, plus a random new assortment. Your friend list takes a new shape each time, as you find a different set of connections. And maybe you quietly drop some friends you're tired of. Most of us have done this over and over again.
Social networks are made to dissolve. It's one of the services that social networking sites provide: going away. You don't want to get stuck with the same version of your friend network indefinitely, or get trapped with the exact same identity forever. It's often kind of a relief when you quit using an old social media site, because you get to start over from scratch. It's like shedding your skin.
Plus, when an old social network dies, a lot of evidence gets buried. That fight you had with your best friend? Lost on some company's servers somewhere. That embarrassing picture of yourself in your underwear? Impossible to find. Your indiscretions are wiped away, making room for a whole new bunch of indiscretions.
Friendster is definitely dead, notes Jamais Cascio, a research fellow with Institute for the Future. Some of Friendster's profiles may still be stored in the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, but you'd have to remember your username and password to access them.
Meanwhile, MySpace is still pretty active — Cascio notes that it had 61 million visitors in November 2011 according to ComScore, which puts it within spitting distance of Google Plus. But there's no doubt that MySpace has declined dramatically from its peak, and has become a "smaller, more functionally focused network that gets used as an adjunct" to the main network, which is Facebook right now.
Could Facebook be different?
So could Facebook be the first evergreen network? To do so, the internet giant will face massive challenges, as detailed in the "Future of Facebook" video series now unspooling at FutureofFacebook.com. Creator Venessa Miemis interviewed tons of futurists and technologists, and she's already posted tons of videos in which they detail the various problems that Facebook will have to overcome to avoid becoming another "digital ghetto" like MySpace.
In the video at left, Scott Smith suggests that Facebook has to offer its users something more to do, and become "more tightly integrated," or it'll become "a ghost town in five years."
But in this video, Nova Spivack suggests that Facebook could replace regular email and instant messaging as the main way that people communicate with their friends. And here, Om Malik suggests that Facebook is "the Ma Bell of the 21st. Century."
Bear in mind that no internet site has remained dominant for a decade or two - Google launched in 1998 and really became a dominant force around 2004, when it went public, Cascio notes. Meanwhile, Amazon.com has been a major player for longer, but it has a huge offline component, because it ships physical goods to people.
And Facebook has "already lasted a long time, in Internet years," notes Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. But for Facebook to last decades, it would have to become as prevalent as email, and Rushkoff doesn't believe that'll happen.
Rather, Rushkoff predicts a Facebook backlash. Either something disastrous will happen, like a huge privacy violation or security breach, or people will just get sick of Facebook. The way we use the internet and connect socially is always changing, so at some point we'll probably all fall out of sync with Facebook. If Facebook does survive, it'll be as something almost unrecognizable, that just keeps the brand name "Facebook."
"Facebook has a bright future," as long as it can stay "human and open," contends Gerd Leonhard, founder of Green Futurist and author of The Future of Content. "Facebook is infrastructure now, like a highway, or water." He predicts Facebook will rival Google in terms of revenues within three years, and already rivals Google for importance. The main challenge Facebook will face is user fatigue, as it adds more and more services and forms of content.
Facebook is currently trying to grow through ubiquity, notes Mike Walsh, author of Futuretainment and CEO of Tomorrow, an "innovation research lab." Facebook wants to become the main way that communicate, entertain ourselves, learn stuff, and connect with people. And if Facebook succeeds, then it'll subsume the Web. But if Facebook really wants to last decades rather than years, it should go the opposite direction: "They should open up their APIs and focus on being the world's wholesale social graph platform and allow other players to innovate on the consumer front end."
It's hard to tell if something like Facebook will still be socially relevant in 20 years, because we may be living very differently, Rushkoff points out. Will it still be safe to go outdoors in 20 years? Will people be getting arrested without charges all the time? Our whole way of socializing could be very different, if the world of 2032 turns more dystopian. In that world, Facebook could be the place the authorities search for people to round up.
In that case, says Rushkoff, "people will get scared that using these things (or not using them) will get them suspected. That will make people use them in less and less 'real' ways, eventually leading to their demise."
What if your Facebook status updates are there forever?
A lot of us don't care about privacy that much — until something changes. Maybe three years from now, you have a new job with a more conservative company, and suddenly those "funny" pictures of you don't seem quite as appropriate. Maybe ten years from now, you run for public office. We're happy to let it all hang out — until we want to reel it all back in.
Lots of us have good reason to be glad that our postings on Friendster and MySpace have vanished down the Memory Hole. But what happens if your Facebook status updates never vanish? Facebook's new "timeline" feature just drives home how easy it can be to sift through someone's past updates, going back years.
You could be stuck with an identity you discarded long ago, says Rushkoff:
And that's going to suck. And then their kids will understand it's like getting a really bad case of herpes and so they'll think twice about using this stuff. We haven't yet seen the full consequences in job hunting, mate-acquisition, mortgage applications, and so on.
Maybe "guys will fuck over girls less, because now it goes down in their user profile — or in the comments of others," adds Rushkoff.
Because Friendster didn't give its users public-facing pages that could be slurped up by archives and spiders and search engines, your Friendster profile wasn't preserved anywhere, notes Cascio. But Facebook does have public-facing pages, which means that even if Facebook vanished tomorrow, "anything about you that lived for a day or more on your public Facebook page — or on someone else's public FB page — will very likely be findable in a decade or more," says Cascio.
But Cascio sees an upside:
It's not just happening to you. Because FB (and Tumblr, and other embarrass-yourself-in-public sites) are so popular, in that same 10-20 years we'll be moving into a society where most people have experienced the same "why did I post that a decade ago?" moment (or, at very least, have someone they know and love who has experienced it). Unless you're running for public office, those moments of indiscretion from 10 years ago will not be considered terribly relevant.
Rushkoff predicts Facebook will probably offer a service to let you scrub your account — for a fee. "You pay them maybe $10,000 for the privilege of starting over. They can blackmail pretty much anyone. Never send a private message through Facebook. They have no contractual obligation not to blackmail you."
Could today's kids be stuck in Junior High School for life?
You can join Facebook at age 13, when most of us are still in Junior High. What happens if you make a Facebook account at age 13, and you still have that same account at age 33? Or 43? Would you still have all your Junior High social hierarchies, preserved in the bedrock of your friend network? Would all of your 7th grade drama still be preserved when you're middle aged?
Rushkoff worries that in this situation, nobody will ever really grow up. We will stay emotional children, we will lose the ability to move on, we will be unhappy, less productive, less innovative, and more sick."
Walsh says Google's Eric Schmidt summed up the situation really well: We humans have never experienced a time when information was "so persistent." And a time could well come when people would consider changing their legal names when they turn 18, "to escape the legacy of their digital childhood."
But Leonhard notes that real relationships will always be about the combination of offline and online encounters. And as "offline" and "online" converge, we will stop thinking of them so much as two separate places. People will also be more likely to start grooming their Facebook pages more carefully, and "personal branding will become more of an art form."
I think that what is most likely is that people will learn to use the Block or Ignore button more readily, and pick-and-choose who from the past they want to keep in touch with. The only way that one would be stuck in the old hierarchies would be if one is still surrounded physically by those people, so cannot escape them. If the only way that the Queen Bee or Top Jock from high school have of harassing you is via Facebook, putting up a digital wall is super-easy.
In the end, Walsh believes that we'll wind up with fragmented networks, which can't be captured on any one social platform. " You will have your childhood friends, your work contacts, your going out friends," says Walsh. " They may all interconnect on an underlying social graph, but it will be like dipping into different pools of social liquidity." So Facebook will be one of several different platforms you'll probably use to manage different parts of your social and professional life, "but only you will have the full picture."
Meanwhile, Cascio says that becoming ubiquitous and everlasting could be the worst thing to happen to Facebook:
If Facebook becomes so ubiquitous that it is socially or economically deadly not to be part of it, then it essentially becomes the background noise, just like the Internet in general. People who want to have more focused gatherings will create alternative spaces; some of those alternative spaces will have the right mix of characteristics to start attracting more and more people.
In this scenario, FB never really goes away — it is so commonplace and so basic that it's like having a phone number — but it is no longer relevant. It's purely a utility, and nobody really cares about it unless FB screws something up.
Maybe that's the future of Facebook — making sure that they screw things up frequently enough to remain on everyone's radar, but not so often or so badly they drive people away. A delicate balance, indeed.