Facing the future: Will we all work for Mark one day?September 16th, 2010 by Ville Miettinen
For most people, part of the allure of travel is not just the thrill of adventure, but the telling of the story afterwards. So it was for a friend of mine, when she related a story from her recent trip to New Zealand.
One morning, while she and a few other backpackers were eating breakfast in their hostel, a gray-haired German tourist suddenly burst into the room. “You must come down to the beach!” he said, puffing hard from his short run. “There are hundreds of dolphins!”
While hurrying to get her bikini on, my friend felt obliged to wake up a Canadian girl, who was still dozing in her dorm room. After all, this was the sort of thing they had travelled to the ends of the earth to experience.
“Oh wow, thanks” the Canadian said, as she rolled out of bed, took her laptop out and flicked it on. “Do you want me to wait for you?” my friend said with growing impatience, as she watched the Canadian log into Facebook and update her status to reference the dolphins. “Oh no, you go ahead” the Canadian said. “I’m going back to bed.”
Let us pray
Whether you love it or hate it, spend two hours of your day using it or all your waking hours criticizing it, almost everyone in the world by now agrees on at least one thing: Facebook is a big deal. One only needs to turn to Google for proof: although the word Facebook did not exist before 2004, if you type it into Google there are no less than two and a quarter billion results. It is perhaps no irony therefore that Facebook has recently overtaken Google as the most viewed website in the US.
Ever since it began to hit headlines, people have been debating what the future holds for this era-defining social network. In 10 years will it be a withering has-been like AOL, or will it become a phenomenon that is as a pervasive feature of modern life as the iPod, or even TV?
With over 400 million members – from zealous supporters to those who rarely show up – the Facebook community is now perhaps more akin to a world religion than a website. In the online world, the value of a product or service increases in direct proportion to the number of people who use it. This means that Facebook – like Google before it – is in an increasingly dominant position in the market, and as discussed in the Guardian recently, arguably too big to fail (in the sense that the social networking service has achieved a position of such dominance in the online ecosystem that its eclipse is unthinkable).
But that is not to say that this dominance will always continue. AOL is an example of how the big can fall, as is Myspace. Even without the tactical blunders which with hindsight precipitated these companies’ fall, Facebook faces numerous hurdles.
For one, some argue that social “networking” is intrinsically self-limiting, because as primates we can only cognitively maintain a very limited number of relationships.
Although that may well be true, presumably growth will still come from new users. But that in itself may present hurdles: if everyone, including your parents and their pets use Facebook, can it still be considered “cool”? I know many of my friends, many years ago avid Facebookers, now have removed their profiles or barely ever login.
Show me the money
Tactically, Facebook has made few errors. One move which has attracted much praise, for example, is to allow people to access information on their Facebook accounts from other networks, such as Twitter. Keen to cash in on the massive user-base, companies have invested huge amounts in programs based on this platform, further contributing to its dominance of the market.
While Facebook is now finally starting to generate serious money (in 2010 it should make over a billion dollars) one often sited weakness of its business model is the relatively low number of click through rates for social network advertising. This is why despite the enormous membership, revenue is still disappointing (“disappointing” clearly is a relative term here).
This has not seemed to worry Facebook, which is more intent on developing its services than monetizing them. In October 2008, Zuckerberg said “I don’t think social networks can be monetized in the same way that search did… In three years from now we have to figure out what the optimum model is. But that is not our primary focus today.”
Although profits do not necessarily dictate fortunes (look at Wikipedia), it seems fair to assume that if Facebook could profit fully from the size of its user base, its position of dominance would be significantly strengthened (being in a position to spend vast sums on development and buying up new businesses always helps).
Tag – you’re it
One way this could eventuate is through using its hundreds of millions of users, like you and me, to work for it. Of course I don’t mean that Mark Zuckerberg is going to offer us all jobs, but that Facebook may well look to monetize its membership using crowdsourcing. Facebook has already used crowdsourced labor when it translated its webpages into other languages (as discussed in an earlier posting). This process was so successful, that Facebook has now tried to patent it.
In the future Facebook could extend this by offering members the opportunity to complete basic microtasks such as asking users to decipher a hand written word or tag a photograph that a computer reading system is having trouble with. For such microtasks it could get away with paying the crowdsource labor with online goods, such as game tokens or apps. With a growing demand for such goods, and a user base of half a billion, the potential value is enormous.
Just imagine: A few years in the future, instead of just updating her status, the Canadian girl in my friend’s hostel could earn a virtual dolphin to send to her friends before going back to sleep. What a wonderful world it would be.