Technologizer

Of Course Facebook Is a Utility!

Pundits are accusing Mark Zuckerberg's company of turning into what he said it was all along.

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Justine Hunt / Boston Globe / Getty Images

Facebook co-founders Dustin Moscovitz (left) and Mark Zuckerberg in Harvard Yard on September 12, 2004

Jenna Wortham of the New York Times wonders if Facebook is “fading.” She finds herself spending less time there, says that her younger relatives show little or no interest in it and notes that Facebook itself says that younger teens are spending less time on the service.

And among the people she turned to for insight is an academic who explains why Facebook may be growing less appealing:

But S. Shyam Sundar, a director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University, said that Facebook had become a utility, like a phone carrier. People go to Facebook to document the major events in their lives, he said, and keep track of those of others, not unlike a public, community scrapbook.

This is not exactly a revelation. Another authority on Facebook’s ambitions also says it’s a utility: Mark Zuckerberg himself. As he told the Atlantic’s James Bennet in September:

Maybe electricity was cool when it first came out, but pretty quickly people stopped talking about it because it’s not the new thing, the real question you want to track at that point is are fewer people turning on their lights because it’s less cool?

That sounds a little defensive. Is Zuck hastily re-positioning Facebook as a utility to deal with the notion that it’s no longer hip enough to command the full attention of young people?

Nope. He’s always called Facebook a utility. Here’s a quote from an article by Jeff Clavier on “The Facebook” from October 27, 2005, when the service had around 5,000,000 members and was open only to students in certain universities and invited high schoolers, and was pretty much the Snapchat of its time:

Mark said that he has not conceived the Facebook as a social network – which is a community application, it is a directory that he considers a utility that students use in order to find information which is socially relevant.

Zuckerberg’s vision has had its occasional blips, but for the most part it’s been remarkably consistent for almost a decade now, and he’s never wavered on the idea of Facebook being a utility. More than anything else, that might be the mantra which got the service to 1.19 billion monthly active users. It’s also helped make it into a real business. Among the lessons of the web: The fact that something is cool doesn’t mean that there’s any obvious way to make a lot of money from it, and the fact that something isn’t cool doesn’t mean that it’s doomed to failure.

Nor is it exactly news that teenagers see Facebook as a ho-hum obligation rather than the center of their social life– here’s a story from 2009 (“Official: Facebook is just not cool anymore”) which reads eerily like some of the pieces being published right now.

Which is not to say that Zuckerberg shouldn’t be rattled by any signs that a new generation might not be bonding emotionally with Facebook. Besides Snapchat, Wortham’s story mentions WhatsApp, Line and other social services that are growing rapidly and have plenty of cachet among teenagers. Another piece by Wortham and colleagues Vindu Goel and Nicole Perlroth digs deeper into the whole subject, including Facebook’s failed $3 billion bid for Snapchat.

On the web, the single biggest reason why giants collapse is because they don’t react quickly enough to indirect, emerging threats of this sort. If Facebook blithely dismissed them, it would be cause for alarm. But if the company is looking like a utility for the masses rather than a hot property for young people, it’s not a sign that the game has changed — it’s Facebook being what it’s been trying to be all along. And have you noticed? Utilities can be solid businesses. Maybe even better businesses than ones beloved by trendy teens.

10 comments
OscarTerence
OscarTerence

I am unfortunately deeply rooted, but if I could get my friends to migrate to a less addy, less info hungry site I would do it in a second. It just so happens that everyone is using facebook, though I rreally hate the exhibitionism it promotes.

PatriciaTurnbull
PatriciaTurnbull

I started using Facebook as a way to stay connected to my girls, family and friends...in the past few years now I use it primarily for games...they have so many to choose from and it's a great way to pass the time...my kids are grown up and moved out onto their own so I'm alone here most days...and when the house work is done I  play games the rest of the time...so ya it's a utility for me as I can communicate in game mode...as well I like to put up inspirational quotes to help ease the day...place a game for all to play on my wall I don't think it's fading just the talk and hype about it is...this is as concrete as concrete can get....it's here to stay and kids do love it for status purposes as mine is forever changing hers...they are always simple....breakfast/shower/clean....then a few hours later...lunch/chill with a friend/go to rents that means parents for those who aren't sure.....then a few hours later....supper/shower/chill with my bestie....these type of posts are common among the teens along with picture posts posted all day long....generally about the role of love in some way....but for me it's games/friends and family...

chrispy
chrispy

They are a utility, but one that sustains itself by violating our privacy. This is why I prefer Ravetree. They have an awesome set of useful apps, AND great privacy.

StephenJohnson1
StephenJohnson1

Of course, I wouldn't have found this article without FaceBook.  Who wants to go look for news when the news you want comes to you?

kirstenslc
kirstenslc

I'm currently on my third FB account. The first two times, I deleted my accounts because I thought the place was bananas. I created the third account more or less as concession and partly because it was cool finding old friends. I liked that about it. Eventually, I came to understand how social media is an excellent marketing tool. When that clicked, everything  was copasetic. Incidentally, I purposely do not share major life events on my FB page or any other SoMe sites

However, as recently as 3-4 weeks ago, FB started rubbing me the wrong way again and I've mumbled once or twice about giving it a rest. What I find fascinating is, just around the same time I was letting FB bother me again, news articles about wide disenchantment with FB were popping up.

After reading this, I do believe FB has a shelf life, but I think Twitter has legs, or wings. What will be interesting is seeing what takes its place. Whatever it is, I hope it provides users with creative tools and forces them to express themselves with more than words. Kind of like a hybrid of Instagram, Twitter and YouTube with awesome image and video editing and a way less corporate behemoth, clinical feel.

amberhuston11
amberhuston11

""People go to Facebook to document the major events in their lives, he said, and keep track of those of others, not unlike a public, community scrapbook."


Wait, isn't that its definition? 

MarkTaylor
MarkTaylor

I admit I use facebook as a took to keep in touch with my family living abroad is hard though I cant sit next to them at the dinner table and share my experiences facebook is how I do it. I think the same of many other abroad or not. In some ways I blame the over commercialization of facebook. I no longer get notifications when my friends or family post something I get notified  because facebook want me to be involved in a game or contest that will ultimately lead to me spending money. It is becoming less about the users and more about profits in my opinion thats why facebook is dying. 

BrianJohnNicholson
BrianJohnNicholson

I doubt the utility of someone wishing good luck to another on Facebook when that person is in the same room.

Sounds more social.

AlfanRK
AlfanRK

@MarkTaylor  That's what I am feeling too about FB right now, It's annoying to see too many commercial ads on my page