Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Will privacy issues herald the end for Facebook?

I've been seeing a lot of people talking about deleting their facebook accounts over the privacy issues. At first, I chalked it up to my twitter contacts being more aware of security issues than average (I do follow a lot of security folk), but I'm starting to see retweets from outside my own network that imply a lot of people are jumping ship:

@tonyakay: "I deleted my Facebook" is the new "I don't own a TV"

Which really probably sums it up. It's a bit pretentious and holier than thou to announce your lack of Facebook, and it's kind of a techno-elite status marker. When Wired called for an open alternative to Facebook I figured I was right on the money, and it was just a thing for tech nerds to do.

But then I started seeing things like this:

@thesixthbaron Was told by a student this morning that not having a Facebook account is now cool. #abouttime

Facebook's biggest strength is in the network effect. The more people you know who use Facebook, the more useful it becomes. Everyone says, "Oh, I have to keep my account because $some_friend_or_family_group still uses it to communicate." But if Facebook is starting to be uncool the way myspace became less cool, then there aren't going to be as many people worth keeping an account for.

It's not just the people that keep users on Facebook. No one says, "I'm too addicted to FarmVille to leave." But I'm guessing that's an issue for some. However, it turns out the games may be jumping ship too. (And if you don't want to admit you're leaving because of the games, you're probably going to say the problem was privacy, because that's what the cool kids are saying.)

So now you have fewer friends on Facebook, and you have fewer new games... will you stay, or will you find you're spending most of your time elsewhere and encouraging your friends to do the same? People will keep their accounts in case Joe from highschool wants to chat, but they'll use them less and less.

We're starting to see suggestions that the facebook ecosystem actually could collapse, not just that some tech people wish it would.

Privacy is a big deal and countries are starting to care. Those are big players, but a mass exodus of actual users now shows that it's more than a few policy-makers and the techno-elite who care: privacy may actually be a selling point for future social networks because it seems that the market is demanding it.

The question for Facebook is "at what point will enough people leave?" and the answer right now may be, "when they have somewhere else to go." And that next big thing may have to provide some pretty strong privacy guarantees to woo over enough audience. Is it possible? Yes. Will it happen? That remains to be seen.

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