It’s easy to forget that Facebook has only been around for eight years. In that time, Facebook’s grown from a college dorm room project to a multi-billion dollar company, and made its 27 year-old founder the 4th richest person in the United States. But Facebook’s life represents an eternity in internet years, where sites live, dominate and die at historic speeds. Surely, then, Facebook must one day die, right? According to Clay Shirky, no one ought to hold their breath waiting for Facebook's demise.
Bangs - Meet Me On Facebook
It's easy to forget that Facebook has only been around for eight years and only available to non-college students for six. In that time, Facebook's grown from a college dorm room project to a multi-billion-dollar company and made its 27-year-old founder the fourth richest person in the United States.
But Facebook's life represents an eternity in Internet years, where entities live, dominate and die at historic rates. Surely then, Facebook must one day die, right? I dragged Clay Shirky back to ponder the question of Facebook's inevitable demise.
It's hard to guess how long Facebook will be around. I mean, everything ends at some point. But I don't think that there's any foreseeable future in which Facebook goes away or even becomes significantly smaller or less important than it currently is.
Okay, so lay out how Facebook is different from say Friendster or MySpace.
Well so, do you remember that moment in the 1990s when it was possible to imagine that mobile phones were kind of a fancy luxury that you might have but your main phone was your house phone, like you had something tied to the wall?
MySpace and Friendster were sort of like that era of mobile phones, where it might be fun to be part of a social network, but really it wasn't the main thing you were doing on the Internet. The importance of — you know, I had the search engine, we have this email, and then we've got these social networks over here, and they're kind of fluff.
So now, fast forward ten years, and mobile phones become something that's gone from being a luxury that you might have, to being a utility you have to have. So the big difference between the Friendster and MySpace era and the Facebook era is that social networking, like mobile phones, has gone from something that's seen as a kind of sideline to something that if you don't have it, you're now actively at a disadvantage in large parts of society.
Isn't there, as Tim Wu suggests, a kind of law of social networking entropy that would eventually eat away at Facebook's dominance?
Sure. But the Holy Roman Empire failed too [LAUGHS]. I mean, are we talking 2020 or are we talking 2050. Start from now and project into something like the foreseeable future. Make a list of their advantages: Enormous user base, incredible economies of scale, world class infrastructure. The, the marketing department is their own user base. Advertisers are tripping over themselves to get involved. No one wants to call themselves a competitor.
Now make a list of their disadvantages, right? A handful of privacy nuts are cranky.
Can - can you think of a second thing to add to that list? I can't.
Okay, it's 2050. Facebook suffered a cataclysmic epidemic.
Right, and we're all — we're all livin' off the grid — yeah.
[LAUGHS] You look back, what's its legacy?
There will never now not be a period where most human beings on the planet are connected to the same grid. I think that's the really big change, right? There was a kind of a theoretical way in which that was true of the telephone network which in terms of underlying technological connection got there first, but Facebook is the first tool to ever have a majority of the — adults in the connected world using the same service. And this, this is new, right?
As late as 2008 it was possible to imagine that different countries would have different leading social networks. Spain had Fotolog, Brazil had Orkut, the U.K. had Bebo, and so on. Four years later that's all gone.
It's clear that the only thing that keeps Facebook out of a country is if the government invests a very great deal of money to specifically block Facebook. I have a hard time imagining a world in which we don't always have a service like that, even if in 2050 it is not Facebook.
Clay, thank you so much.
Thank you, Brooke, great to talk to you, as always.
Clay Shirkey, author of Cognitive Surplus.
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Oh and, by the way, Facebook declined our requests for an interview.
As Mark Zuckerberg told Wired, it's really easy to have a nice philosophy about openness but moving the world in that direction is a different thing.
[BANGS: MEET ME ON FACEBOOK]
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited by - Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC's senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.