At a media discussion this week, the moderator asked the room full of mostly college-aged students by a show of hands how many of them would pay to read the news online. She then conducted the same poll replacing news sources for social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. It appeared that twice as many students, if not more, raised their hands for news than they did for their beloved networking sites. Why would that be?
As someone who remembers the early days of Facebook - and a time before it - I remember that college students flocked to it for its connectivity and for its simplicity. Since its inception, the site has stayed comfortable in the role of a time waster or needed distraction from studying. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of money to be made capitalizing on people's laziness, lack of studiousness and curiosity.
The site has recently expanded its domain to other generations of people who similarly seek a break from their work, classes, routines and relationships. Yet, as the Web site continues to grow in its popularity, somehow its following has begun to wane. In fact, other companies are now trying to pick up where Facebook has left off.
And thus is the nature and design of the digital era. We have the creative ability and wherewithal to spawn new sites from ideas that, at another time, would either have not been considered, disregarded or deemed impossible. It's no secret that Facebook evolved from MySpace which found its roots in our collective need to waste time on the Internet. The message that this audience conveyed the other night was that they don't see the value in paying for sites that are replaceable or unnecessary in the first place.
Now, I acknowledge that there are some valuable elements to Facebook, even if it is largely seen as a time waster. The networking possibilities that are offered through reconnecting with old classmates and colleagues can prove invaluable. But with the abundance of sites that are providing these services today, you have to wonder if Facebook can hold on. Or, more strikingly, if it really wants to.
Every time there's a re-design on the site an uproar emerges. Facebook groups and angry letters apply pressure and feedback to the site's designers about what upsets the masses. These re-designs, from what I have observed, mostly move icons around without seemingly improving their efficiency or the site's possibilities. Over time, designers may say that I'll readjust to the new design and realize that it's better for a variety of reasons. Instead, I wind up asking questions about the sites' sustainability and mission to remain a constant digital force.
Consider what the site could have been. While other sites emulate the social networking that Facebook has offered from the beginning, it was the first and leading provider. It set the standard for others to live up to and to prove they could do better in order to prosper. That still doesn't mean that Facebook has been perfect in its execution.
For instance, one of the features that the site has offered for many years now is called "Notes" which allows users to essentially write their own blogs. Facebook has thrived on other features such as its photo albums and status updates, yet the notes feature never quite took off.
At the same time, Google's Blogspot network and start-up blogging companies like Tumblr have seized Facebook's demographic and given their users the easy-to-use platform they desired for their blogs. These sites encourage colors, pictures, funky fonts, the chance to link to other pages, to follow other people's feeds, and many more artistic opportunities than Facebook's notes can accommodate. Had Facebook more aggressively pursued their users to give them a one-stop shop for all of their creative pursuits, perhaps their users would now better cherish the value in the site.
Imagine if the site where you have posted all of your original work and preferred links decided to go to a paying format at a reasonable price. It would be a bargain just to be able to hold onto and continue to build and share with others.
The hardest part about accepting the reality that Facebook has fallen behind is that it was once considered ahead of its time. There's no longer that same sense of optimism, vigor and growth about what the site could become. Newspapers, on the other hand, are now trying their best to adapt to the changing audience. This change isn't as simple as taking the same product from print to an online version. It'll take a bit of an overhaul to reshape some people's minds to pay for online content that once came free of charge. But based on what I witnessed the other night, it appears that many already believe in the new news possibilities.