Facebook Is a Fundamentally Broken Product That Is Collapsing Under Its Own Weight
In 2008, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his theory about people sharing content on Facebook.
"I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and [the] next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before," he said.
The New York Times called it "Zuckerberg's Law," a playful homage to Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who said, "The number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months."
In 2011, Zuckerberg reiterated his theory on sharing, saying that it was still growing at an exponential rate.
And Zuckerberg is right about that.
But the exponential growth of sharing may not, actually, be helping Facebook. And with the explosion of dedicated mobile sharing apps, the industry may be evolving in ways that Zuckerberg never foresaw.
Specifically, Facebook is now trying to cram so much "sharing" through a single service that it is overwhelming many of its core users. Meanwhile, companies like Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Twitter, and Instagram (which Facebook owns), are now cleaving off types of user-sharing that Facebook would like to have owned.
The amount of sharing that Facebook is trying to cram through its News Feed is now starting to turn into a problem for Facebook, argues freelance analyst Benedict Evans. We spoke with Evans last week about mobile messaging apps and Facebook, and he had a very pessimistic view of the latter.
In August, Facebook revealed that "every time someone visits News Feed there are on average 1,500 potential stories from friends, people they follow and Pages for them to see, and most people don’t have enough time to see them all. These stories include everything from wedding photos posted by a best friend, to an acquaintance checking in to a restaurant."
Let's say the average Facebook user is awake for 17 hours a day. To consume all that stuff, they would take in 88 new items per hour, or 1.5 things per minute. That's just not possible.
Facebook knows it has a problem. It planned a major redesign that gave users more control over the News Feed. But it was scrapped when the first batch of users showed low engagement with the new design.
It's also talking about trying to tweak what stories show up in your News Feed to cut back on what it considers to be low-quality content.
To Evans, this is evidence that Facebook's core product, News Feed, is "broken."
"The problem they’ve run into, the problem of sharing, of Zuckerberg's law," says Evans, "is that the News Feed has turned into a black hole and collapsed under its own weight."
Facebook started off as a place to keep track of what your friends are up to, but because there's so much stuff flowing through the News Feed, you could easily miss what your friends are doing. He points out that today, you could post that you're getting married, but only half of your friends might see that posting because of the News Feeds' algorithms.
"That’s a product problem," says Evans. "There's so much noise in the News Feed, they broke the product." Facebook can come up with algorithms to surface the best material, but Evans says it's just "a hack." The deeper problem is that the "underlying product is broken."
Evans presents an analogy to explain Facebook's New Feed problem: "If you have 1,500 emails coming in every day, you wouldn't say, 'I need better algorithms.'"
But, Zuckerberg's Law suggests we're not getting rid of anything on Facebook. Instead, we'll have more stuff. By this time next year we could have 3,000 posts, links, videos, status updates, etc., all flowing through the News Feed. It's a struggle to sort through 1,500; how will Facebook deal with sorting through 3,000?
This News Feed issue becomes particularly problematic for Facebook in mobile.
On the mobile phone, it's easy to have an "unbundled" experience that could hurt Facebook, says Evans.
On the desktop, Facebook is one big, monopolistic application. The inclination is to stay within Facebook for a lot of stuff.
On the phone, it's easy to hit the home button, then open a new app, like WhatsApp, Snapchat, or Instagram.
Because the News Feed is broken, argues Evans, these targeted applications pose a problem for Facebook.
Want to just see photos from friends? Go to Instagram, or Snapchat. Want to just exchange messages with friends? WhatsApp, or Snapchat work. Want to play games? Candy Crush, Angry Birds, QuizUp, or whatever you want are available.
Just a few years ago, photos, messaging, and gaming, all resided in Facebook.
Now it's all on your phone, which has developed into the real social platform. Apps can tap into your phone's photos and address book, and deliver push notifications. Those were things that Facebook controlled on the desktop. Now, on mobile, "All the friction that protects Facebook isn't there," says Evans.
And, it all gets back to the News Feed. With so much stuff running through the News Feed, what should a mobile feed do? Should it be more about personal updates? Should it be a best of all those other apps? Facebook is still working through it.
Facebook isn't going anywhere. It's going to remain a permanent force in our lives. And with mobile growing, Evans says Facebook will still be a winner. He just doesn't think it will be the only winner in the social mobile world, unlike in the desktop where it has a monopoly in social.
That said, Evans cautions, "There's a bear case for Facebook: It turns into Yahoo. Billions of people use the product, but no one really thinks about it."