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.