A Youthful Rebellion Against The Permanence Of Facebook’s Walled Garden

Below is my column from last week. I’m not sure it was that good. It’s a difficult topic, but one that has fascinated me for a few months. Truth be told, I haven’t yet wrapped my head around it. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. Indeed, great things can come from this, and for many of its one billion users, Facebook isn’t just on the web — it is the web. It is where images, biographical data, and every speck of a connection to a person, place, or thing lives, both the dream of a doting family spread miles apart and a marketer close by. It is a place where generations of people now reside, hang out, fawn over public statuses and peek into the lives of others. Ironically, while Facebook’s aim is to make the world more open, they themselves are building a new web within their own closed garden, inaccessible and (mostly) unexportable to all. As the saying states, “what goes on the Internet is written in ink,” so what goes onto Facebook is etched in stone walls.

Yes, much of Facebook’s traffic comes from mobile now, too. For most people who don’t care about all the latest and greatest apps, Facebook works splendidly for them, simply yet powerfully connecting them to exercise the habits they’ve picked up on the web version. Yet, at the same time, mobile platforms (phones and tablets) have presented newer and younger audiences with new graphs of people, folks whose first computing device may have been of the latest iPod touches (complete with Facetime), folks who live in other countries with exploding mobile growth adoption curves. As working professionals have come to use the Internet to help define, cement, and reinforce their perceptions of their own identities, younger generations in search of their own identity can use a battery of new services and mobile apps which containerize their activities, isolating them from the permanence of the web, a permanence embodied by the likes of Facebook and Google+.

These ascendent generations may have a Facebook account for the web and to use Messenger, but they seem to be disinterested in a network where everyone hangs out, where their parents or schoolteachers may be lurking. (To be fair to Facebook, Google seems to invoke similar fears of permanence given all the apps data they have on us, combined with their integration of Google+.) The emergence of this trend isn’t an implicit criticism of Facebook, though the company sure does push its users to adopt certain behaviors — rather, this trend is merely the world evolving alongside the rapid spread of personalized computing interfaces, giving rise to services which snap, share, and explode digital pictures (SnapChat), allow users to buy disposable phone numbers (Burner), or to assume various pseudonyms and tag pictures associated with negative, potentially shameful, or embarrassing feelings to an audience who will empathize with them (Whisper) — and pay a monthly membership fee for the right to send private messages. (There are services which go steps further, encrypting information — such as Bitcoin or Wickr — allowing people to move without a trace.)

What I’m writing about here is not new or original. I have read a lot about this and have simply grown fascinated by the trend itself, the trend whereby more and more people enjoy the ease and shelter provided by lightweight mobile applications, ones that seemingly never touch the web and spread like a Facebook share. For a brief selection of items I’ve read on the topic, I’d suggest: PandaWhale’sAdam Rifkin on why teens are flocking to Tumblr over Facebook; TechCrunch’s Billy Gallagher on the “impermanence” of new mobile apps; Branch’s Josh Miller’s look into technology trends among teens; and USV’s Andy Weissman’s personal essay about how he doesn’t want to bring video memories from another era on to YouTube.

All in all, the questions this trend trigger are equally fascinating: Is this just the beginning of a big wave, or this simply a trendy byproduct of a world obsessed with social networking? If this is a trend, does it have the legs to provide the foundation for a company or set of companies to form around this organizing principle? What does this mean for the future of the Facebook newsfeed and its relevance to users? Will Facebook be reduced to a utility for public sharing backed by real identity, but miss out on all the texts, snaps, and other bits of mobile messaging exploding these days? Is this a new type of movement, or simply the ebb and flow of behavior as generations pass? And, as the trend continues, will the younger generation of users who grow up “app-first” seek to bypass the web and explicit social networks altogether, or will they join the masses as they mature?

I’ve been talking about this trend with knowledgeable folks for a few months now, and everyone has a different, interesting point of view. I certainly don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but questions themselves are undeniably fascinating. It’s not even been an entire year that Facebook has been a public company, and they are on track to make lots of money (especially on mobile), but there’s no denying that despite their growing mobile metrics and revenues, mobile apps that provide all varieties of private messaging seem to challenge Facebook’s immediate relevance. As these mobile apps grow, and as Facebook approach’s it’s 10th birthday next year, the next 10 years will likely be defined by a whole new set of what is considered “social networking” — and that might already be the new reality today. What is clear, however, is that while on the web, Facebook’s walled garden enjoys a captive audience already trained to do what it wants — on mobile, that walled garden is relegated to the size of an app icon alongside a sea of competing icons with very different or non-existant “sharing models,” and if today’s currents provide any trustworthy bellwether, the next 10 years for Facebook could present quiet a thorny challenge.