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Will Facebook decline just like Yahoo! ?

So asks Mike Elgan in an excellent article at Datamation.com, an IT trade publication.

I do wonder about Facebook’s long term future. I can see how it will have a long-lasting revenue stream, but a healthy and growing one? What do they really offer?

I know some people go for the games such as FarmVille,  but as far as I’m aware most people are like me – we use it because it is free, and our friends use it. None of that suggests we’re willing to pay money for the privilege of talking to our friends. I won’t be the only one who ignores any and all adverts when I’m doing a spot of cyber-socialising, either.

Social networking is really no more than a more sophisticated form of email. Most everybody pays for an email service which is accessible through a web interface, effectively joining a massively distributed system (a.k.a. the internet). Distributed systems are a more natural fit for social than the massive centralisation of Facebook and Google+. Eventually we can expect that fast, reliable protocols for social networking will be built into the average broadband offering.

This is not new thinking – check out Diaspora. It’s already happening, and there are other related open source projects. These will get baked into mail servers, or some new standard will evolve in the cloud. There may be little need for massive Facebook data centres in  the future.

(I wish I hadn’t just been made redundant when Diaspora launched their Kickstarter project. By the time I decided I wanted to be a part of it, despite the financial silliness of being spendthrift, they had closed funding. Still, I suppose I should be grateful for being saved from myself.)

At the point where social networking is built into your internet access bundle, the value of Facebook disappears. Similarly for Google+, although Google has the advantage that its social network is just an adjunct to its hugely profitable search and advertising business. It won’t feel the same commercial pressures by any stretch. Nonetheless, my hope is that both are replaced by some form of peer-to-peer system which mirrors how our social lives are structured.

Most people only have around 100 friends on Facebook – I can never remember the average, maybe 125? – and status updates are typically very small. This isn’t a lot of computing power or network bandwidth. Add to the mix privacy, de-centralisation of control, and the ability for niche groups to build their own solutions on top of the basic protocols. This is a genuine technical alternative.

The other major model in social media is Twitter, which could have a far rosier future. It has aspects of a broadcast network, which is not the same as just connecting with friends. Similarly, LinkedIn’s a clear business model of facilitating recruitment and professional networking is a very different scenario.

So Facebook will adapt. It’s certainly been amusing to watch them scramble in response to Google+. But there’s a limited number of communities who seem keen on full-on social networking e.g. media types (inc. bloggers), campaigners (marketing and political) and free-time-gifted youth. Oh, and my fellow geeks who would probably use it anyway :)

I’ve grown to love social media, despite being a privacy-loving introvert. But a de-centralised model where I control my data would be much more to my taste. It would be no loss to humanity if Facebook were replaced by a lower key, more humanistic alternative.

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