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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hepcat Michael Wolff: Facebook is "Square"

Posted By on Tue, Oct 9, 2012 at 10:15 AM


When you're trying to decide what's hip and what's square, there's really only one place to look: Michael Wolff writing in USA Today.

Wolff is a serial Internet failure who is nevertheless a highly successful self-promoter. The two don't go together at all, especially considering that he promotes himself as some kind of sage when it comes to media and the Internet. But he's been able to convince a lot of easily duped editors that he knows what he's talking about, so he gets big book contracts and lots of placements for his "think pieces" in publications like Vanity Fair.

On Monday, USA Today ran his column with the headline "Facebook Is ... MySpace?" In it, he declares that "Facebook is cookie-cutter-ish. Facebook is boring. Facebook verges on the totally square."

And so, Michael Wolff has stumbled upon a truth that your grandmother learned three years ago: Facebook, yes, is square.

So? Facebook is successful, in large part BECAUSE it's square. If it had tried to stay "cutting-edge," it would never have grown to its current size. MySpace tried to have it both ways -- to remain relevant to its core base of young, net-savvy users while also appealing to the masses. Of course, it didn't work. That's partly because the people deciding what the hip kids were into were executives at News Corp., which purchased MySpace for $580 million in 2005 and sold it last year for $35 million. Having News Corp. deciding what is hip is a lot like having Michael Wolff deciding what is hip in the pages of USA Today.

Wolff says that Facebook, which recently announced that it has 1 billion users (a number I don't believe for a second, but will go with for now), is under threat from "a carve-up of the social experience." Other, more niche-oriented social media services will whittle away Facebook's user base, he says. Those include services like Path, which serves no ads and limits the number of friends you can have (Path's hope is that people will pay for various functions such as photo filters), and ArtStack, which calls itself "social platform for art."

Piffle. Such niche sites might do well (though, how many people do you know who use Path? Have you ever even heard of ArtStack?), but they're in a different business from Facebook, which has become a mass medium and the center of millions of people's online lives. Sure, it's not worth anything like what its investors were hoping when the company decided to go public (it has lost about half its value since its IPO). And sure, it probably shouldn't have gone public at all. And sure, the online ad business is crap, and many of Facebook's ads are lowbrow and cheesy. And sure, it can't grow much bigger, which puts pressure on the company to come up with elusive new forms of revenue and causes the company to treat its users like commodities even more than other media companies do. But none of that means that the service is under threat from tiny niche services.

Facebook's draw is that you can gather all the people in your life in one place, and have a central hub for keeping up with them and sharing not only personal things like family photos, but also outside media. Niche sites are an addition to Facebook, not a replacement for it. Wolff compares Facebook to mass media in the offline world. "General-interest magazines, national television networks and all-purpose portals are always succeeded by an ever-narrower special-interest approach," he says.

Sort of, but not really. People still have general interests, they're just newly able to cobble together tons of different sources of media devoted to those interests, splintering the market. But, for instance, the four major TV networks are still huge, even though cable TV has drawn much of their audience away at various times. People who watch "Honey Boo Boo" also still watch "Two and A Half Men" (in fact, I would guess there's a lot of overlap there). But the comparison isn't really apt anyway. You can't devise a "rule of media" that applies to all media at all times in all forms. Facebook isn't a magazine or a television network. It's not even an Internet publication. It's a gathering place for sharing stuff -- often stuff picked up from other media. It is the ultimate deployment of the network effect: the more people who are there, the more valuable it is.

None of that guarantees that Facebook will last forever. And of course "valuable" is a relative term, especially when it comes to online ads. But Facebook far larger, far better, and far more successful than MySpace ever was. It might fade over time, as online behavior and technologies change, but if so, it will be a long, long time. For now, it has hundreds of millions of users and is still growing. Whether it is "square" or not is beside the point. It has to be square so that it can continue to appeal to your grandmother, your co-workers, your racist uncle, your pals, your knuckleheaded, right-wing high-school classmates whose profiles you have hidden, and your friends from the bar you hang out at. There is no one thing the world that all of those different people would consider "hip," and yet they are all on Facebook.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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