Facebook’s lost year

2013 was a good year for Facebook, the stock. It was much bleaker for Facebook, the product.


2013 was supposed to be a momentous year for Facebook.

In January of that year, Facebook launched a closed beta of Graph Search. The work of Google Maps and Wave creator Lars Rasmussen and a “Dream Team” poached from the ranks of Google, Graph Search was positioned as Facebook’s “Third Pillar”–a cornerstone product, right up there with News Feed and Timeline.

Even though the videos made Graph Search look complicated, the product sounded fascinating: a new way to navigate the internet and uncover some of its bounty, mediated through the links between friends and associates rather than links between websites.

Finally, it looked like Facebook was taking a meaningful step towards realizing Zuckerberg’s vision of the social web–the one where Facebook evolves past its current form as a noisy, dopamine-cranking distraction into a real utility. I couldn’t wait to try it.

I haven’t used it since the first time I did.

Then in March, Facebook announced a big redesign. Though it wasn’t the drastic reconsideration of the entire Facebook experience that I’ve been expecting since Facebook acquired Push Pop Press, it was ambitious–intended to make the photos and stories shared on Facebook far more visually appealing.

But more than nine months later, rumor has leaked that the new design never spread past a “single-digit” percentage of Facebook’s users, and that Facebook has put the kibosh on rolling it out to the general masses.

But the ambition of Graph Search and the redesign paled in comparison to what came next.

Facebook Home: A beautiful idea

“Facebook Home is the next version of Facebook.” — Mark Zuckerberg

As a strategic move, Facebook Home would have made Sun Tzu proud. Instead of building a new smartphone and sending itself charging out of the trenches towards the machine guns of Google, Samsung, and Apple, Facebook would do an end-run around everyone and use the “openness” of Android to get a large percentage of its 1.2 billion+ users to give it control of the lockscreen and the app launcher.

From that perch, Facebook would suddenly have control of the flow of mobile attention on the world’s dominant mobile OS: from the moment a user looks at her lockscreen to the moment she launches an app from the custom launcher, Facebook would be free to augment and commercialize the whole experience.

But more importantly, it would have a “thin edge of a wedge” that would let it steadily embed itself deeper and deeper into a major mobile OS–not only seizing control of many of the phone’s core use cases, but enhancing them with totally new social ones!

And if Apple refuses to play along?

Sucks for them! iOS just gets left behind as social becomes a core component of the competition.

It was so, so smart.

Unfortuantely, the reality of Facebook Home has been somehwat less inpiring than the concept.

Nine months after its launch, Facebook Home has 2.5 stars on the Google Play store. It ranks far below the standard Facebook app and its companion, Facebook Messenger, on the Google Play charts.

Interesting updates have not been forthcoming.

Facebook’s uncertain future

Facebook faces a time of transition.

As Graph Search struggles to gain a foothold on the desktop and Facebook Home flounders on mobile, the artillery shells keep falling on the mobile messaging front: SnapChat blows off $3 billion of Facebook’s cash. WhatsApp hits 400 million users. KakaoTalk, Kik, MessageMe…boom, boom, boom, boom.

And who knows what new threats lurk behind the barbed wire across no-man’s land, waiting to launch another assault on Facebook’s vulnerable mobile flank?

Meanwhile, the current manifestation of its product relies in large part on feeding our brains’ reward mechanisms with dopamine and distractions: a never-ending stream of updates and attached comment threads whose algorithmic signal-to-noise filter gets it right only a fraction of the time.

But this is the day we live in, and the little nuggets of signal in News Feed and the attendant dopamine squirts are what keep us coming back. They keep us hooked and engaged and allow Facebook to push us ads for new mobile apps to install or sponsored page updates to click. They are what keeps Facebook’s revenue meter incrementing upwards, day-by-day.

KACHING!!

But surely, Mark Zuckerberg’s aspirations for Facebook extend beyond giving humanity a better a way to distract itself from life. Surely, he envisions Facebook becoming a central actor in the creation of a more connected, empathic, and humane planet, not merely the best way for marketers to target and transmit their ads.

But how to get to there from here?

The chasm between Facebook, the website and the native apps that distract us with a vacuum of entertaining but marginally-useful information, and Facebook, the identity network that helps us navigate the futuristic landscape of the 21st Century, is wide and treacherous.

At the present moment, the bridges that cross it look a bit shaky