The denizens of the Internet are a fickle bunch. Memes and fads appear, evolve and disappear at an astonishing pace, start-ups, websites and services barely have time to bask in the rapidly moving limelight and the dot-com bubble has become more of a dot-com foam.
The recent news of MySpace’s ailing health has shown that no matter how large the beast is, it can fall. MySpace, only a few years ago the social hub of the web, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for the princely sum of £372m at its peak in 2005, but has failed to generate significant revenue. Now after redesign, re-imagining itself as a music portal and a spectacular and somewhat pricey re-launch, it’s been valued at £50m, and the workforce is being cut by half.
MySpace did too little too late; it rested on its laurels and didn’t move with the times – and that’s something which Facebook on the other hand has done very well.
Facebook’s spectacular climb to the top of the social network ladder (an estimated 1 in 12 people in the world now have a Facebook account, and the average person has 200 friends) can be attributed to a lot of things – certainly luck, being in the right place at the right time; responding to its users and not ‘selling out’ are all big pluses. What can’t be said is that Facebook was in any way prepared for its popularity. Technically speaking, it was not built to scale – it was written in the wrong programming language and the Facebook team have been battling with that ‘legacy issue’ ever since, coming up with some ingenious (if long winded) solutions.
Another thing Facebook has done right is constantly shift with the times. Rather than embrace popular culture, it’s instead defined popular culture. It hasn’t turned into a vehicle for a niche, such as MySpace becoming music-oriented and thus limiting its appeal. Facebook has also implemented new features, and dragged its users kicking and screaming over to their ways of thinking. ‘Places’ for instance was at first disliked and badly understood, but has now become commonplace – and the newly added ‘Questions’ has filled everyone’s walls with spam, but it will undoubtedly prove to be a popular feature in time.
The important factor is to keep changing – Facebook roll out new features and tweaks every other week, often unannounced. They trial things, turning them on and off for subsets of users, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and so what stays and what goes. Facebook ‘evolves’ just like internet memes, as people find new ways to make it fresh. Over time Facebook has reached a point where it’s become a fundamental part of the Internet experience for the vast majority of people – and in fact is now on its way to being a fundamental part of the Internet itself, as the ‘Like’ button inexorably creeps into every gap and can now be applied to any website, object, concept or person.
There will always be a ‘next big thing’, but for the moment, it looks like Facebook will continue to be the biggest thing.