“A Diamond is Forever”, created in 1948 by the copywriter Frances Gerety for the DeBeers campaign, is the longest-living payoff in the history of advertising. And it’s still fashionable. We’ll resume it, here, with a questioning tone, analyzing something still hard to understand: will social networks live forever?
If there is Facebook, with more than 600 million users, there is also Myspace, that was forced to fire half of its employees. And there is also Ning, forced to ask a subscribing fee in order to survive. Even Facebook though, unbeatable giant, faces some difficulties in some parts of the world, like in Japan, where it’s stuck at 2 million users. (We know Japanese are reserved people…).
Obviously, this thought came out neither from a foreseeing presumption, nor from an unjustified catastrophism: we simply want to relate to the provocation launched by Douglas Rushkoff, an American theorist and guru of the digital world. At the beginning of January, on the CNN website, he foresaw the end of Mr Zuckerberg’s creature. A prevision made in the light of the super investment made by Goldman-Sacks, that launched Facebook to a value of over 50 million dollars.
Rushkoff, differently from me, can afford to doubt about the future of Facebook. At the beginning of 2000, the New York Time asked his opinion about the fusion of American on Line with Time Warner, a $350 million deal. He wrote an article, foreseeing the end of the AOL’s reign, that with this financial operation tried to save its fortune by fusing with a corporation based on real, and not digital, goods.
Same story for MySpace, bought in 2005 by Murdoch for $580M. It wasn’t the bad management of News Cors. that made the Californian social network fall down: according to Rushkoff, MySpace’s destiny was already written, the website was already in a descending phase. The change in charge simply gave the deathblow, transforming a young and informal working environment ( that lived in rock-star style) , into an institutional and corporate office ( with standard hours, 9am-5pm). This decline still continues, with a change of layout that attracted more critiques than praises, almost a surrender of Myspace to Facebook; and the discharge of 500 people, pretty much half of the employees in the Beverly Hills offices. Plus the closing of the Italian offices, just to give you the idea.
The point of the Rushkoff’s reflection is: it’s not true that Facebook won. It’s not true that MySpace, AOL and Friendster lost. They all won, but in different times and if now MySpace is losing, this will happen to Facebook as well. And he sends another provocation: in his opinion the next winning social network will have a function that will allow the migration of all the user’s friends, to bring them in case he wanted to change platform. It’s better to prevent, isn’it?
This is a vision that, if we want, doesn’t crush with the scientific skepticism that has always followed many reflections we made: as this article reminded, in fact, the big trust that we give to psycotecnologies ( as De Kerckhove would say ) should always consider the public’s reactions, the ways to use the medium and the market pitfalls. Especially in the long-term.
How it was recently written in the Wall Street Journal when the value of a company is too high, the expectations are soaring and there is always a concrete risk to blown everything up. This happens in spite of the efforts of Facebook to integrate the life of its users in the website, in order to maximize the revenues.
Let’s ask ourselves the same trivial question: who, let’s say 5 years ago, would have bet MySpace to have such a decline? I wouldn’t. And why did it fail? Lack of control, lack of self-understanding ( and of its target ), but most of all, lack of innovation. Always in Rushkoff’s opinion, a social network survives when it gives the illusion to be capable of big profits, without disappointing and boring its public.
Here we connect to another case: do you remember the triumphal articles about the platform destined to call the shots in the future marketing? I believe you’ve understood what I’m talking about: for who hasn’t, Second Life was, for many people, what the New England was for the Pilgrim Fathers. Pilgrim Fathers expert in marketing previsions.
Advertising campaigns signed by Toyota, showrooms where to test virtual Mercedes, U2 concerts, but also Renato Zero’s, the famous co-creation operation Virtual Thirst by Coca Cola and even the Obama’s electoral campaign: everyone started investing huge money on this medium. Even Reuters had a channel dedicated to the Linden-world, a sort of “bureau” of virtual world. It seems that decades have passed, but it was only 2007-2008.
And then? Technical problems (chat and conference for example ), millionaire campaigns that ended up in a failure. Then the explosion of web-mobile, that certainly is not suitable for such a complex and heavy technology. But most of all, the mass media and the public opinion started not bothering anymore: a slipped by trend, that became a niche; the end of one of those so-called fad (passenger trend). And the recent discharge of 30% of the staff ( 100 people out of 350 ).
It must be said that Second Life still counts 19 million users, not certainly a bunch of people. However, it’s not followed by the crowd: active users are only 1300000 ( on June 2010 ), mainly tech savvies. It can’t be compared to the figures of YouTube or Facebook and no even to the glorious expectations of few years ago.
And if we talk about business, for Second Life things are even worse: statistics prove that virtual worlds doesn’t have much impact in terms of marketing. In a 1-7 scale, if the response of web-videos is 4.3 and 5.2, Second Life has one of 1.4 and 1.6. In fact, the investments have been cut: no one talks anymore of marketing campaigns in this virtual planet and if you look at the page of Reuters news center dedicated to Second Life, the last published article ( in 2009 ) says: “The Reuters Second Life bureau is now closed”.
As a conclusion, we don’t want to generalize and we know we can’t consider social networks as simple bottles of water of different brands. Everyone has its peculiarities, its own characteristics, each time different. But the underlying problem remains: some realities, once considered infallible, have failed. The question is: our generation, that is delegating to Facebook a good part of its public and private life, let alone its own limited time in this planet, can imagine a future, let’s say in 30 years, where this technology could be absent? I can’t.
Translation by Luigi Tarini
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