Facebook is under fire again, this time for dipping into the News Feed content of up to 700,000 users in an eerie experiment to gauge their emotional states. The revelation left many users and observers furious and looking for ways to erase Facebook from their lives.
And yet the social media behemoth, which launched in 2004, continues to dominate.
“Facebook is the starting point for everybody on the Web,” said Professor Nikki Usher of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “It is the first social network that everybody joins. And I think that that probably is it – it’s the starting point. You may not need Facebook all the time, but you have a Facebook account.”
Whether Facebook is the primary network people use all the time, Usher says it is something they know that has become “such a basic part of being on the social Web.”
Many web applications, services and websites are structured in a way that requires a Facebook account before users can access their features, essentially making Facebook “the passport to the Web,” she said.
“Having Facebook as a log-in – because Facebook is a log-in now – you don’t have to have a million passwords. That, I think, is really huge,” she said.
Twitter also has that feature. But Usher says Facebook is “familiar,” the “most basic” and the “easiest for people to navigate.”
But the biggest reason for its continued dominance, according to Usher, is its sheer scale and the number of people – more than one billion – who have been with it all these years and have enjoyed the global interconnection it offers.
People are ultimately creatures of habit. “Moms, Nanas and Pops didn’t join MySpace, did they?” Schmittauer asked. “So people still log on every day to see what’s happening with this network that they spent so much time building and communicating with.”
This “insanely huge” active user base is what continues to draw commercial brands and advertisers to Facebook.
“They are funding a social network that can use that money to pivot, acquire and continue to rule the market,” she said. “It’s truly incredible, but still very understandable.”
While Twitter offers some features found on Facebook and connects people to the larger Web, Usher says Facebook “is often considered more personal in the sense that you can really put forward your personal profile.”
Facebook’s built-in features give people the ability to build a profile, have a real conversation with others, join groups and plan events in what Usher calls “a very rich user experience.”
“And it’s at this point probably the premiere way to put together words with pictures,” she said. “It is still one of the primary places to do that. And the purchase of Instagram will continue to make Facebook … the primary place for this.”
Both Facebook and Twitter are growing globally, although Facebook has a larger global footprint. While each meets the needs of certain demographics and cultures, Schmittauer views Twitter as the “true social network.”
“When you can predict an earthquake coming your way thanks to a communication platform like Twitter, you know it’s a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “Monetization for Twitter will continue to grow in many ways as it has for Facebook. And they are going to be around for a long time.”
Innovation from the inside becomes harder as a company grows bigger. And Usher says Facebook has been “losing trust with a lot of users.”
“That’s why you see Facebook making all these acquisitions … [to] innovate from the outside,” she said.
But she says reports of Facebook losing its younger demographic have been “overstated.” And she argues that it is still going to be relevant to people.
Whatever happens to the social media juggernaut in the future, Usher says its News Feeds controversy will probably fade away, leaving Facebook at the top of heap.