It was 2007, so our reference points for “swampy mushes of spam” were myspace and Friendster. Early adopters, MacLeod went on to explain, would flee these social networks as soon as a clean, viable, spam-less alternative came along: LinkedIn, say, or Facebook.
In fact, MacLeod argued that this was the reason early adopters would join new social networks. It wasn’t because people were sitting around going, “You know what I need to do? Rebuild my entire social graph somewhere most of the people I know haven’t even heard of. Convince them to come along. Build my profile all over again. Learn a new interface and new habits.” No, MacLeod said, they weren’t running to the new networks. They were running away from the spam.
This explains why it’s possible for a network like myspace to go from being the most popular website in the United States -- with more visitors than Google -- to being virtually nonexistent in just a few short years. In 2006, the same year myspace hit 100 million members, it was being mocked on “Saturday Night Live” for being a home for perverts and pedophiles. It’s no wonder users eventually abandoned the site.
Which brings us to Facebook, and its seemingly impenetrable chokehold on the global (bar China) social media experience. Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook: the “network effect.” By that logic, there would be no way to compete.
But by Hugh’s Law, a new network wouldn’t have to compete on network effects. An alternative to Facebook will become viable when Facebook becomes non-viable.
Earlier this week, Wired’s Noam Cohen explored just how much of Facebook’s power comes from people believing in the network’s good intentions, both within and without the company: “[T]ake away a faith in the goodness of Facebook, and what’s left is a monolithic entity, designed for relentless tracking and targeting and manic growth… Instead of preaching the joys of being part of a connected world, Facebook is now digging trenches. Slowly, the company is giving up its claim to magical powers, which supports the sinking suspicion that before the government breaks up Facebook, it may break up itself.”
That same day, Azeem Azhar tweeted, “Another Monday, another email from a friend disconnecting from all Facebook services. The social utility has been soiled.”
Of course, it’s important to remember, as Stratechery’s Ben Thompson points out, the difference between “Facebook the company” and “Facebook the product.” What I’m talking about here is Facebook the company; we can leave the discussions about Instagram and WhatsApp for another day.
Azeem is right: The social utility has been soiled. Cohen’s piece has some particularly devastating quotes, including this one from a member of the Canadian Parliament: “While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California.”
Cohen also references the resignation letter from Facebook’s Mark Luckie: “[T]o continue to witness and be in the center of the systematic disenfranchisement of underrepresented voices, however unintentional, is more than I’m willing to sacrifice personally. I’ve lost the will and the desire to advocate on behalf of Facebook.” BuzzFeed is blaming riots in Paris on the platform.
Can and will people leave when things get too bad? Of course. If it’s bad enough, people don’t even need an alternative. If your current environment is a swampy mush of spam, you might not wait until you have a perfect new environment to go to. You might just get out.