Will Facebook Go the Way of Myspace? And Can Regulation Be Far Behind?

21 Mar

facebookIt wasn’t long ago that the world’s largest social networking site was overtaken by a rival and lapsed into irrelevancy. Will the same fate befall its successor?

Many will remember that from 2005 to 2008, Myspace was the number one social-networking site in the world and the most visited website in the U.S. Aside from the emergence of new competitors, analysts have cited factors such as Myspace’s inability to enhance their users social networking experience, an over proliferation of advertising (which slowed the site down) and the inability to effectively filter inappropriate content or to limit phishing, spam and malware, as reasons for its demise. 

It was Facebook, the shiny new object with expanded social-networking apps that succeeded Myspace as the world’s largest social media platform. At the time, social networking was immensely popular with young people, and Facebook was no different, building its fortune by focusing on 18 – 24 year olds in general and college students in particular.

Over time, older adults began to flock to Facebook in record numbers driving both platform usage and advertiser appeal. However, the growing presence of GenXers and Boomers on Facebook caused many younger users to lose interest, turning to alternatives such as Instagram, a Facebook owned company, and Snapchat. Ironically, the dynamic of having this younger user base abandon Myspace for Facebook is what precipitated its decline from the number one website in the world to its current rank of 4,446 based on total web traffic (source: Alexa Traffic Ranks).

Are we beginning to see chinks in the Facebook armor?

Of note, on a recent earnings call, Facebook executives indicated that the organization had experienced declines in both the number of daily users and time spent on the site. The negative indicators for these two key metrics caused the stock price to fall and analyst to begin to question Facebook’s stranglehold on its social networking position. As an interesting corollary, the duopoly of Facebook and Google, which is projected to account for a 56.8% share of digital media spending in the U.S. in 2018 (source: eMarketer) is expected to see its share of “new” digital media spend drop to 48% from a high of 73% in 2016.

Fast forward a few weeks and Facebook has been hit broadside by a data scandal stemming from the actions of a political behavioral research firm, Cambridge Analytica that secretly “scraped” the personal data of up to 50 million Facebook users, without the accountholders permission. Once again, the financial markets reacted quickly, with Facebook shares falling more than 12.0% over a two-day period, wiping out billions of dollars in shareholder value.

However, the bigger risk resulting from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is not the near-term impact on share price, but concerns regarding “trust” and the lack of data and privacy protection for users, advertisers and government regulators. Facebook users will surely be upset that Facebook was seen to be not only lax in protecting their privacy, but greedy in aligning themselves with and profiting from a relationship with a firm like Cambridge that is involved in nefarious activities designed to impact political elections in various countries around the world.

Further, lawmakers in both the U.K. and the U.S. are moving forward with requests to compel Facebook’s chairman, Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the appropriate parliamentary and senatorial committees to answer questions about the company’s recent lapses in data security and privacy controls along with the firm’s ongoing lack of transparency and or cooperation with government regulators.

Beyond the recent consumer privacy protection shortcomings, Facebook’s acceptance of fraudulent advertising during the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. and its lack of screening controls for fake ads and inappropriate content had already raised the specter of U.S. regulatory involvement.  The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection has indicated that there is a “strong possibility” that it will be launching an investigation into whether or not the company violated federal rules prohibiting “unfair, deceptive acts or practices.”

Unfortunately for Facebook, its ongoing indifference toward lawmakers and the lack of sensitivity it has demonstrated or sense of ownership that it has taken regarding the aforementioned issues are not winning it many friends.

Of note, neither Facebook’s CEO, COO or Chief Privacy Officer have provided public commentary on the Cambridge Analytica situation as of this writing.

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