Betwixt and between: Facebook’s act of desperation
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is considering lowering the minimum membership age to include tweens. It raised eyebrows and kindled a new discussion about privacy and the propriety of inviting youngsters into what the company aspires to make the world’s biggest salesroom.
But I have a different concern: Soliciting children would be pretty strong evidence that Facebook needs a big boost to its already staggering 900 million membership to justify its valuation and business model. Having courted every early, middle and late adopter possible, there isn’t much low-hanging fruit for Facebook anymore. But courting tweens would inevitably invite scrutiny and regulation, since the prospect of cyberstalking is even more toxic that cyberbullying.
In other words, the potential rule change looks like an act of desperation. Coming off a miserable stock market debut, both the merits and atmospherics of this notion are decidedly bad.
It’s easy to see why this would be on the table. Facebook has to prove that it can sell things on a massive scale, that it is the 21st century’s answer to television. All of that seemed possible before it went public on May 18, as the company’s valuation was pushed up steadily for months in thin trade on private exchanges among well-heeled insiders. But the question of just how good an advertising medium Facebook can be has been pressed by a steady decline in its share price during 12 days of trading – to about 60 percent of its historical high. Until Facebook can prove its business model, it’s a good idea to keep bulking up so that a leveling off of membership, or even a decline, doesn’t turn the story really ugly.
For Facebook greater, and growing, numbers are essential. Like panning for gold, you need a lot of water to come up with a few grains. So to achieve gold-rush growth, Facebook has to mine the young end of the spectrum.
That’s partly because there isn’t much else to mine. The size of Facebook’s user base is mature – and the fastest growing demographic is already of the mature: middle-aged people and above account for 46 percent of the membership. Age 24 and younger are a mere 14 percent. The youngest age group is ripe for the picking, but the risks are high: It is most vulnerable, immature and incapable of coping with the sort of challenges even adults have trouble dealing with on social networks. So why ask for a world of hurt – unless you have to?
Facebook has flirted with the idea for a while, of course. The Journal reminds us that CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself floated the idea a year ago: “That will be a fight we take on at some point,” he told Fortune in May 2011.
It’s no secret that plenty of underage people are already on Facebook. My own daughter joined during middle school. So part of any outrage about this would have to be of the feigned “shocked, shocked” variety.
Facebook could spin this as an opportunity to help parents by making special rules about interacting and pitching to tweens, imposing technical fixes that sort of rope them off until, say, their 16th birthday. It can’t do that now, since these tween accounts technically don’t exist. Facebook can’t be expected to protect people it’s obligated to keep out or kick off.
But that’s the spin. Underlying it is the commercial imperative. Admitting tweens would continue a long-term expansion strategy that created the biggest tech IPO in U.S. history from a college dorm project. It would be only the latest example of Facebook moving further away from its roots as an ad-free, exclusive network for Harvard students. The irony is that Facebook only found fame and fortune by admitting anyone – over 13, that is.
This time opening the door wider feels very different. Lowering the age of consent would be an admission by Facebook that even a billion (members) isn’t cool. And that’s not cool.