Serving the social graph and keeping the lights on: What Facebook and MySpace have in common with the power company

Mashable has a post today discussing Facebook’s 10% traffic decline from March to April as well as their year-on-year slowdown from 98% growth to 56% growth. This just adds to the recent meme of “Facebook kind of sucks” that has been going around for a while. For example RWW wants to make Facebook useful again and Scoble tweets about his version of the malaise.

The first issue seem to be with Facebook apps. They’re too spammy, too messy on the profile page and too pointless. I have to agree with this point. I just don’t know that there was so much missing from my poke experience that I need to be super-poked (or banana kicked or abducted by aliens or really receive a picture of a freaking cookie – but hey, I don’t have a $500 million company so what do I know?). Facebook is working to solve this problem by tweaking privacy settings, application notification rates, etc. Their long-awaited profile redesign should help as well.

The larger issue in my mind is that once you get on Facebook and get over the initial high of finding people you’ve not talked to in 7 years and exchanging a few wall posts, there’s really not that much to do. It’s great to connect with these people and get periodic updates on what they’re doing via the News Feed but it just doesn’t create a terribly sticky experience. There are some aspects of Facebook with real utility such as groups and events but they are really just small features that really aren’t much better than the alternatives.

I think the reason for both the issues above is that Facebook and MySpace are each aiming to be the utility company for social networks; ubiquitous and underlying everything else. Facebook even (in a phrase I have to feel like comes straight from Zuckerberg) calls itself a “social utility”. The problem with this approach is that utilities are not where the action is. Very few of us think about how awesome our power company is for powering our TVs; we just expect to pay a reasonable price and for the electricity to never go out. Utilities are what have to exist so we can get to the good stuff.

With the advent of the triple data portability initiatives from Facebook, MySpace and Google over the past couple weeks they’re taking even more steps towards becoming these utilities by providing their social graph data to others. In my opinion, it will be “the others” (and possibly Google) that benefit most from these developments. Sites targeting highly motivated niche communities will be able to spring up and use social graph data without having to force users into yet another “find and friend” cycle. Unique user experiences can be created that exploit the webs of links between people in the same way links between pages have been exploited on the web. Ultimately, these sites and applications will be the destinations for users looking to get value from social networking. We’ll go there, do the fun stuff (and maybe even spend the money). We’ll just expect Facebook and MySpace to fade into the background and keep the lights on.

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  1. How many users are really looking to get additional value from their social networks? Aren’t they really just looking to do social stuff? It seems to me that you have to upsell the additional value.

    Twitter, for instance, is a pure social network with no real frills. People flock to it, or don’t, based on the core functionality. I think Facebook is pretty much the same, even though it has more to offer if you opt in.

    Facebook won’t be a “utility” until its users start thinking of it that way. I need power, water, and internet to do things I care about. I need social networking … to be sold things? In other words there’s a reason it’s called “face book” and it has nothing to do with the utility aspect.

  2. kevinc: Point taken re: being sold things. However, it depends on how you define “additional value”. People have obviously taken to the idea that they can have worthwhile software-mediated interactions with a network of friends. The problem is that up until now, those interactions have been defined largely by the same companies that are providing the underlying social data. We’re pretty much in a stage of “renting the phone from AT&T” when it comes to social networking. I think by default with data portability, these networks increasingly become the utility and we “buy the phone” (or modem, or computer) from someone else. When any endpoint is allowed to connect into these networks, it’s hard to say what sort of value will follow.

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