It is not about how smart Mark Zuckerberg is. It is always about the user experience.
Facebook is playing a very risky game by changing user experience every six months, not only by changing their layouts, which is more obvious and irritating to common users, but also by changing the underlying mechanisms that has been working well, which is to me far more concerning.
The reason of changing the layout is apparent. It is (a) to find the optimal time and space asserting the advertisements, and (b) to compete with next-to-real-time social network like Twitter. Both reasons are fair, but the execution is proved to be very poor. It takes in average 5 seconds for a person to determine whether or not to stay at a webpage, but it takes more than a month to get used to a layout and controls.
Now some may criticize those who keep outcrying every time Facebook changes its layout. Yes, they may outcry every time, and it does not really mean that all these people really want to go back to the plain, dull layout in say 2007. But look at the keyboard in front of you as an example. Definitely not the best layout, and quite the contrary, the keys were purposely scattered so that the typebars on the typewriter would not be jammed. 130 years after, we are still so much used to this inconvenient yet most popular (at least in English-speaking countries) keyboard arrangement. Imagine today Facebook becomes the monopoly in computer keyboard industry and decides to change the keyboard layout. That would be a disaster. Yet, that is exactly what Facebook doing to us every 6 months, and that certainly put its business at risk.
And there are changes in underlying mechanism, too. For a long while, when Facebook was still young and up and coming, it is all about sharing your personal life with your friends. Pictures, videos, thoughts, events, etc. Now there are two phenomenons making Facebook less about people and their interactions, but more about generic news and the “funny” things.
First it is the poorly implemented “like” function:
– It reduces the meaningful conversation and interactions down to a single reaction.
– And since a single reaction is not sufficient most of the time, users start to abuse it. You are asked to use “like” to vote, to pray, to support, to protest, to get someone to donate $1 to a charity, or in the most common situation, to show that “Meh, I have read this and I don’t really bother to write any response but I want you to know I have read it so I may as well “like” this so you’ll notice.”
Then it is the raise of generic, non-human profile accounts. Whether or not they are selling products, running campaigns, featuring events, or promoting celebrities does not really matter. What matter is, it changes the nature of Facebook from friend/person-oriented to a generic, non-audience specific website. If I want to see pictures of cute and adorable cats, I would have gone to icanhascheezburger.com or lolcat.com. It might be one of the more obvious ways to blend revenue generating feeds in user feeds, but it directly compromises the core value of Facebook, the user experience. Digg.com is a walking example. Kevin Rose, founder of once one of the most traffic intensive user-voting social network, decided to launched Digg 4.0 in late 2010, which the website would then consist of not only user submitted stories, but corporate sponsored stories. Rants from the loyal users guaranteed, and the most rapid shift of users happened in the internet history. Reddit.com, a direct competitor, take over a good portion of original users of Digg, and out ranked Digg’s daily page views in percentage almost at the same period of time. It is a great example of failure on one’s own hands.
Facebook has been listed and trading at 70 times price over earning ratio, which is almost 100% higher than the average P/E ratio under NASDAQ Internet Index (~37x). Most believe that Facebook will not fade away, and the most pessimistic analysts estimate that Facebook will not be replaced any time earlier than 2020. But if the history of the internet teaches us anything, it is the tipping point of changes. Geocities, Friendster, MySpace, etc. were all once the biggest or hottest websites ever. Facebook is still keeping its advantage by having by far the most users on it. But as long as we see a shift of users happens, and if it happens with a critical mass, it will be inevitable. I, for once, will be happy switching to any other website if I have more friends connected otherwise. And it is not unusual to see my friend opting-out from Facebook these days.
Although it is almost a tautology to predict Facebook will fail one day, I still can’t wait to see that day coming.