Facebook, shmacebook: What’s the next great thing?

May 18, 2009

John Abell

John C Abell is the New York Bureau Chief for Wired.com and edits the Epicenter Blog. The opinions expressed are his own.

Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla in the social media space, with some 200 million members, a valuation of perhaps $5 billion and a base that has expanded well beyond its early roots as a private hangout for bored Ivy League students.

But, like the ad says, life comes at you fast — and there is nothing more unforgiving than internet time. So, are the best years ahead for Facebook, or is the finicky mob of cool kids — and now their parents and grandparents — already peering down the road for another Next Great Thing?

One thing is for sure: Nothing lasts forever. We need Microsoft, perhaps, but nobody gets very excited about it anymore (except maybe a hyperactive Steve Ballmer). AOL? They could do no wrong when dial-up was king. But when broadband made competitors out of the telcos AOL had leveraged to create an onramp to the internet, a steady decline into near oblivion began.

The internet roadside is littered with bold ideas hatched too early or denied a dignified death. David Wetherell was considered a bold genius when, in 1999, he turned up his nose at a deal that would have valued his internet incubator CMGI at about $18 billion. Fast Forward to 2009: CMGI is now ModusLink Global Solutions, and worth about 1/100th that.

But at least it’s still around. Netscape, the granddaddy of all dotcom IPOs, was purchased by AOL before the dotcom bubble burst and was RIP for all intents and purposes in 2007. Video powerhouse Broadcast.com? Bought by Yahoo and now ghostware. Yahoo isn’t doing all that great, for that matter.

So far, though, Facebook keeps catching the wave. It not only makes money, but a profit — perhaps as much as $200 million this year. Not bad for a company that has no discernible business model. It is said to be worth as much as $5 billion, a figure extrapolated from rejected cash infusion offers by private equity firms and the secondary market for employee insider shares. That’s a far cry from the $15 billion valuation implied by Microsoft’s $240 million investment for a 1.6 percent stake in October 2007, but it ain’t hay, and we are in a global recession.

Valuation is an important part of the Facebook story, but other numbers are even more important: Facebook’s demographics. The story of this metric can almost be told with a single factoid: Mark Zuckerberg matched the median age of a Facebook member when he started the thing — and now, at 25, he still does.

Age creep is a good thing — the alternative is death, remember. The college farm system delivers basically the same number of students at any given time, and they are always about the same age. Growing your membership would mean skewing the metric up or down. It’s hard to go down too much. As it happens the fastest-growing group is women over 55, and there are even slightly more members between the ages of 45 and 65 than there are 13-to 17-year-olds.

So far Facebook has avoided the worst mistakes of other social networks, which contributed to their own irrelevance by failing to adapt. It might have been the death knell for Facebook to open up to the parents and grandparents of their earliest adopters, but it didn’t turn out that way. Facebook has attracted a vibrant developer community, but they don’t allow the rampant customization that makes some MySpace pages epilepsy inducing. And even though it has flirted with the dark side when it comes to user privacy, its support for OpenID may prove to be the most significant milestone in the advent of an open and social web.

Even so, Facebook must be hearing footsteps from Twitter, the new kid in town. Twitter is in many ways the anti-Facebook: a distributed society that does one simple thing rather than a gated community with a gazillion avenues and possibilities. Twitter became a geek darling at the 2007 SouthBySouthWest conference in Austin, Texas, and went vertical earlier this year when politicians and celebrities “discovered” it. Some of the cool kids are already saying it has jumped the shark now that the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Sen. John McCain on are it — but they are probably just jealous about the hundreds of thousands of followers these celebrities have.

For the moment, Twitter seems to be sucking all the air out of the room. In the “fastest-growing” metric it is as much a no contest in Twitter’s favor — quadrupling to 17 million U.S. visitors in the past two months — as it is in Facebook’s for overall membership. Like Facebook, Twitter has no real business model yet and yet seems able to sustain itself just fine for many years to come. On those rare occasions Twitter gets bad press, as it did last week when it changed an arcane user setting without warning, the worst insult hurled its way was that its imperious behavior was Facebook-like.

Even Facebook seems to get it. It rolled out design changes two months ago in a clear nod to the Twitter view of the world. As TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld put it: “Despite its already considerable size, Facebook is showing how adept it can be in responding to new threats. If Facebook cannot buy Twitter, it will try to beat it instead.”

Facebook has already made many transitions that have tripped up less nimble organizations. It went from being as exclusive as you could possibly be — Harvard students only — to letting in anyone. It’s as popular now with grandparents as it is with their grandchildren. It is a daily fixture in the lives of tens of millions of people.

Game over? Dude, this is the internet.

Follow Abell on Twitter.

Also on Wired.com:

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Life Before the Console Age: Gallery of Forgotten Electronic Games

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From Brick to Slick: A Historic Gallery of Mobile Phones


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“They could do no wrong when dial-up was king.”

I don’t get it, Dude. Dial-up isn’t still king?

Posted by Robert Basler | Report as abusive

Ok, first of stop trying to be cool – don’t use Dude – doesn’t appeal to us.

Second, twitter is not a competitor of facebook- it is not an either or – they are complementary in many ways. Could facebook add a service to rival twitter – yes.

Third. When you use a title like “Dude, this is the internet”___ be prepared for someone to say:


Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive

@ Robert Basler. It is! It is! Btw, your monthly payment for the 28.8 modem you lease from me is overdue. Gentle reminder.

Posted by John C Abell | Report as abusive

You forgot to mention that Facebook has a retention rate of about 70% of its userbase from month to month, and Twitter’s retention is in the 20s.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

@drewbie. Didn’t forget, exactly. Nielsen says Twitter’s retention is in the 40s, but they only measure visits to twitter.com. Just under half of Twitter activity (sending and reading messages) happens via third-party apps. After you’ve created an account, there is zero need to return to the site, unless you want to change a setting — even if you love it. So, for this kind of service, web site traffic is irrelevant, I believe.

Posted by John C Abell | Report as abusive

@sebastian I don’t think I argue that they are competitors — though of course they are, at least for the hearts and minds of the mob, which I do argue. Having said that I doubt you’d get a principle at either company to say the other company isn’t a financial competitor as well. As to my life-long pursuit of cool cred, we agree: It is sad.

Posted by John C Abell | Report as abusive

I think Twitter is filling a slot for the future. I am a web developer, and the need for innovative web technologies for the “home” user has just fallen off to miserable lows. Its all about industry now, as everyone at home (or on the job) can go play in a sandbox site like Facebook.
But I remember Telnet chatting. I also remember thinking “What a waste of a good technology. Too bad no one ever invented the telephone”, – or telegraph for the SMSites among you. Tada! – enter Twitter stage left. A need-it-now kinda service, without having to slog through everyone’s look-at-me filler. As for a business model, the service is a sound idea that isn’t so internet-specific as to be demanded “free”. I think it will be much easier to regulate fees/charges in the telecom market than the interwebs. Now, what did the Pope have for lunch today?!? I’m on tenterhooks….


Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

well, i have a facebook account and a twitter one.
i do not know how to use twitter, the lenght of the posts is so infimous that one can hardly grunt, and well.. I had an my first e mail account in 1996, and i am not precisely illiterate internetwise so any technolgy that presents a learning curve steeper than my interest is doomed.
Competition is good though, at least so i’ve heard.

Posted by Paola Cantadore | Report as abusive

The two platforms are different and can be integrated. I see twitter to be used more as a business and professional application where fb is more consumer. They can both make money with apps and it’s smart to allow companies like seesmic desktop that combines access to both platforms at once. Both have limitless potential.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

the advent of facebook and twitter is a very interesting thing in the internet social media otherwise known as web 2.0, nevertheless i think that the usefullness of these media cannot be over emphasized and that is why i am personally using linkedin.com as a tool to connect to professsionals and source very good personell for any project linkedin has a collection of 40million professionals in all aspect of discipline, good post i think it is very informative too.
note also that the fear of google in all aspect of web 2.0 is the begining of wisdom
for all keen please connect with me @facebook.com, twitter.com and linked.com, username is ernestnnagbo
Ernest nnagbo

Posted by Ernest Nnagbo | Report as abusive


The next great “thing” on the web should be


And here is why:

Facebook and Myspace are Social networking sites where people can gather to chat and gossip. oooooh aaaaaaah

Wikiepidia (a favorite of mine) is the greatest gathering of human knowledge on the internet – FREE!!

http://www.deviantart.com/ is a gathering place for artists from around the world. You want to see a professional picture of “Notre Dame”? “Rome”?
you want to see someone whose skill with the paintbrush blows your mind? you want to read poems and stories?
you want to browse handmade crafts to buy?
The site is set up so that a person can sell their artwork from the “FREE” domain you are given!
you can get a subscription which unlocks extra features, but is not needed to enjoy what the site has to offer.
Contest are constant and the community is fantastic!!

Wikipedia may be the greatest collection of knowledge on the net
http://www.deviantart.com/ is the greatest collection of human creativity on the net, period.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Facebook and Twitter will all wither and fade.like myspace and all. Both applications while trendy are tedious and pointless and they actually indicate that people have too much time on their hands doing nothing productive.Apart from gossiping about essentially rubbish,what exactly is productive about these time wasters. Who really needs to report every action he/she makes and spread it like a virus.As for facebook which is essentially a zombie population counting device,why exactly do people really trust that their personal information are not been hoovered by the worlds government for diabolival reasons. The ease with which zombies ooze out their data is too unreal despite the fact and evidence of numerous individuals who have been ruined by the information the stupidly dumped on the net. This same people get worried that the governments what national ID systems linked to detailed profiles. Mark these words, all these sites will turn over your documented data in the very near future.As Intel Boss Andy Grove wrote – Only the paranoid survive, unfortunately stupidity is now a glorified virtue

Posted by Chunfla Burlbe | Report as abusive

I feel that JoinMyChain.com has the potential to be much more popular than anyother social network out there. It’s a social interaction competition with an overall goal of linking the world together with the use of photos. It has a competitive edge to it, which other site do not have. It also has a verification process to be part of a chain. You have to email photos to one another and get accepted. This simple process will make it hard to create fake accounts and be linked in to a chain. Other sites, if you take away profiles, blogs, and messaging services, do not exist. JoinMyChain just needs the photo of you and another to keep the chain alive. There are many more details about this site I can get into, but we are still in beta. If you have any questions, please email me at multi-b@joinmychain.com


Posted by Multi-B | Report as abusive

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Posted by Migrom eebest8 | Report as abusive