Social networks don’t age gracefully. They hold on to their place in the Internet long after all the trend stories have been written and new user excitement has given way to boredom. In surviving past the point where anyone really cares about them, social networks get new purposes that are limited compared to their original promises, but in many ways far more useful and honest.
Usenet, an early BBS-style service discussion system, was once an infamous social hub among early Internet adopters long since outmoded; today it’s more useful as a file-sharing network. Friendster helped create the basic profile concept for the social network that today is an online hub for roleplaying games. MySpace today carries on as a musician hub that’s closer to SoundCloud or BandCamp.
Facebook may have become too big to collapse as quickly as either Friendster or MySpace, but its popularity seems to have peaked in the last couple years, with rapidly declining interest from teens, and a number of awkward attempts to expand like Facebook Home and its attempt to become an email service. As Facebook’s grown older, it’s growing easier to separate the enthusiastic hopes of its early days from the mundane truth of how it operates as a maturing business. The more stable and mature a business it becomes, the less social it will end up being.
So what might Facebook look like in the next 10 years? Given the company’s present emphasis on translating Likes into special deals for shoppers, there’s reason to believe it could become the 21st Century equivalent of newspaper coupons and Sunday paper advertisements. Facebook operates like a massive market research firm, and it seems likely that in a few years time it will be able to drop the pretense of being a social platform and embrace its position as a shopping network driven by social vouchsafes, something no one invests any personal significance in beyond to learn about things they could be buying.
Free of the social pretense, Facebook might become a genuinely useful shopping tool, and could potentially offer a credible competitor to Amazon’s world-eating position, offering personalization and the ability to connect with a local community as an alternative to the everything-at-all-times approach that can be overwhelmingly difficult to search through.
The company has been moving in this direction for a while now. In 2013, Facebook announced a Partner Categories project, which allows retailers access to information about the shopping habits, and general demographic status of people who might be interested in their products. The tool is a series of nested menus that theoretically allow advertisers to target their messages only to those Facebook has categorized as most likely to buy a children’s breakfast cereal or a compact car in the next few days or weeks. On the other end of this equation, Facebook users can rely on people in their network to discover new items or services whenever the site interrupts your Timeline with a reminder that the person from that party a year and a half ago likes Seamless.com.
Earlier this year, the company added a Twitter-like “Trending” box to the top righthand side of everyone’s homepage, and even here the preference for highlighting products and services is unavoidable. At the time of this writing, Coca-Cola, Bob Dylan, and Transformers 4 are the things Facebook has selected to bring to my attention. Lists like these are absurdly off-putting since I am an unlikely consumer of all of those products. Most of my friends are already tired of hearing about my anti-Bob Dylan arguments and so bringing it up one more time borders on a kind of social hostility engineered by Facebook’s incompetent computer logic. I’m not even sure what to say about Tranformers and Coke outside of, just, no, not for me.
The transparent commercialism of features like these have contributed greatly to the cynicism and mistrust of Facebook in the last few years, hallmarks of how fundamentally the service seems to misunderstand its users, or at least me. But if you think of these features in terms of pure advertisement and not social exploits they become more tolerable. If the framing of Facebook were a reciprocal exchange of my consumer data for access to information about shops and goods I’d be interested in, I would feel a lot safer about the exchange than under the current mode where the company insists “social” is still its defining characteristic.
As a pure marketing structure, Facebook could embrace a role as an algorithmically driven shopping companion, more elegantly efficient than poring through Amazon reviews and more easily navigable than Yelp. In a way, people using Facebook only to socialize are interrupting the company’s ability to better understand the shopping habits of its consumers, and the prominence of commercial advertising only worsens the experience of socializing by making people self-conscious about just what it is their uploading thoughts and images to in the first place. The kinds of information we share in social encounters is very different, and much harder to parse, than what we share in a retail encounter.
Thinking about Facebook becoming a consumer network instead of a generalized social network may feel defeatist, like shutting off an online dating profile after one disappointing date too many. In the last few years, it’s become apparent that the dream of a totalizing social network probably isn’t ideal for most people. We like our separate spaces, and private communities where we have greater control over context and expectations. These aren’t just features or toggles that Facebook can introduce in an update. But in accepting Facebook isn’t an especially good for socializing today, largely because its business model is, by definition, antisocial.
Attempting to add personalization and discovery to the consumer experience is not an inherently unlikable project, but it becomes one when operating under increasingly deceptive terms. Free of the social pretense, Facebook might become a genuinely useful shopping tool, and could potentially offer a credible competitor to Amazon’s world-eating position, offering personalization and the ability to connect with a local community as an alternative to the everything-at-all-times approach that can be overwhelmingly difficult to search through.
In the same way that one of the secret pleasures of getting the Sunday paper in pre-Internet times was leafing through the circulars, checking Facebook could offer the 21st century equivalent, channeling the optimistic curiosity beneath wanting to buy something new or nice with a digital tool ready to act as your guide without having to pretend like it’s your friend.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.