Is the Facebook bubble about to pop?

Facebook is a fascinating success story (good enough to make a movie about!) but that story might be entering its final chapter, as Robin Harris of ZDNet cites search-engine data that suggests interest in Facebook has already peaked, and is now declining.  It’s not dissimilar to the fate that awaited Friendster, Myspace, and other social media platforms – it’s just a larger popularity wave than any to come before it, cresting and breaking more slowly and majestically.

Basically, the research model described by Harris uses Google Trends data to predict the downfall of social media platforms, on the theory that people stop talking about (and searching for) a website before they lose interest in using it.  Good news for their interest level just keeps trending up and up.  But Facebook is either at its peak or already on the downward slope of user interest, under this model.

Harris’ conclusion:

To be clear, the research doesn’t predict imminent doom for Facebook. 

But it does suggest that the Facebook fad faces user interest declines just as other services before it have.

Interest has already declined among younger teenagers — one reason Facebook paid $19B for WhatsApp — and Facebook has more challenges ahead. Concerns over information security, selling of information, and constant UI changes have soured many people I know.

But given the “social” nature of social services, is it so surprising that they are more like fads than utilities? Facebook will struggle to stay relevant to users’ lives.

It’s an interesting point, because if we were talking about the life-cycle of social media platforms in a vacuum of experience, we might suppose that people would be reluctant to give up their accumulated contact information, apps, etc. to jump to the Next Big Thing.  But in practice, that’s exactly what they did.  Facebook hit so big that some prognosticators thought it might become the end of social-media history, so popular and widely accepted that it essentially became synonymous with the very concept of having an online presence.  Obviously, that’s the goal Facebook had in mind.

But instead, here are some early warning signs that they’re a bigger phenomenon moving a bit more slowly down the same road as all who came before.  Some of that is due to the wonderfully competitive nature of the Internet, where every established success is giving hungry new designers a benchmark to hit and surpass.  Competition for excellence has rarely come so fast and furious.  In the case of something like Facebook, since there’s not much of a financial investment involved, there’s little inertia – if other platforms beckon, users have no reason not to play with them too, and if they find themselves spending more time playing around with the new toys, well, the old toys start gathering dust.

I also can’t help thinking Facebook has made some mistakes that would hasten its demise.  Some of them, like the recent psych-study brouhaha, compromised user trust in the platform.  Some were public-relations blunders.  Others were design decisions that users found annoying.  Perhaps the fate of all platforms is that over time, they get modified enough, and compromised enough in the interest of advertising support, to eventually start looking like beat-up old jalopies, prompting users to trade them in for newer models.  It seems like every platform gets uglier and more confusing over time.  

If anyone had the resources to avoid that aging process, it should have been Facebook, but maybe in the end it will be shown that no platform is immortal.  I can still remember people excitedly claiming that MySpace was forever.