Facebook’s Future

Today, we follow Facebook and update friends on our doings. In the not too distant future, predicts Mikolaj Piskorski, Facebook will follow us and call half the planet customers.
by Mikolaj Piskorski

Editor's note: Now 10 years old, Facebook's growth is starting to slow. That's one reason it purchased What'sApp last month in a jaw-dropping deal valued at $19 billion. What might the next decade be like? Harvard Business School Associate Professor Mikolaj Piskorski, an authority on why and how people use various online social platforms, makes some predictions.

In the first decade of its existence, Facebook, aided by the broad adoption of mobile devices and fast internet connections, emerged as a virtual Cheers bar where people share their lives with a legion of geographically dispersed friends and acquaintances and reconnect with faces from the past. First college students, then Millennials, and soon after, their parents and grandparents were drawn in by the allure of this pioneering social network that effectively shrank the world down to a portable and vibrant community.

The company recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and for much of that time, Facebook's stunning growth—more than 1.2 billion users worldwide—has been the story. That said, the core Facebook functionalities have remained essentially unchanged for the past several years, and so pundits wonder whether Facebook's attraction has peaked. The apparent disappearance of teenagers from the site has made these concerns even greater. I disagree with this conclusion. Teenagers will return to the site when they are older, and Facebook will continue to grow in size, particularly in India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Africa.

“His creation will then undoubtedly bear little resemblance to its current look and feel”

But what will Facebook look like a decade from now? In 2024, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will turn 40. His creation will then undoubtedly bear little resemblance to its current look and feel. A decade of technological progress will result in major changes, and I believe the site will morph into a potent and active force in people's lives.

Today, Facebook is a passive vehicle where users manually post pictures, status updates, and YouTube videos. And then they quietly observe what others have posted, occasionally offering a comment, but often just scrolling down through content. As such, Facebook is a retrospective medium, a place to share experiences already completed and then put them on display. But the company does little to capture information as it happens, and even less to help us organize the future.

But this will change as Facebook becomes a prospective medium—a dynamic, real-time driver that will automatically gather current and future information that wearable devices will automatically broadcast about us, match it with what our friends are auto-broadcasting, and then deliver recommendations on what we should do socially. This will help us get off the mobile phone and actually meet up in the offline world. This way, Facebook will become less of a website to visit than an invisible conduit to the most important aspects of people's lives, a way to keep a closer eye on their children, plan social interactions, be alerted to pertinent products and services, and accelerate the value of a person's connections.

Two trends will lead to this outcome. First, people are already sharing private information generated by their wearable devices, such as Nike FuelBand. The device is a part of a greater Nike+ ecosystem that has attracted over 18 million users who happily share their athletic achievements with others. Just do a search on #nikeplus on Twitter, and you will discover a Nike-related tweet every 10 seconds in every conceivable language. Second, many companies are already encouraging us to share private information automatically. For example, if you are using Google Maps on your iPhone, you are most likely sending information to Google about your location and speed—data the company aggregates to present us with up-to-date traffic maps. It won't be long, however, before the two trends converge, and we will start broadcasting personal information automatically as we go through our day. As soon as Facebook develops appropriate algorithms to deliver the right social information to the right people and demonstrates their utility to us, adoption will soar.

While all this is happening, Facebook's marketing influence will accelerate dramatically, providing a growing revenue stream for the company. When Facebook first started it was no more than a mechanism to attract eyeballs for businesses. Since then it has evolved into a sophisticated marketing machine that enables marketers to serve targeted messages on the basis of our email address or mobile phone number.

But in 2024, technology will make possible real-time marketing possible. As we auto-broadcast our social data, Facebook can respond to them immediately with targeted offers in response to what we need right now. If I walk down the street and feel hungry, for example, Facebook will suggest a set of friends who live nearby and seem available and then advertise a restaurant that we all might like. Or if my nanny suddenly becomes ill and can't pick up my four-year old from preschool, Facebook will automatically display an advertisement for a substitute nanny who has worked for four close friends and who can step in and pick up my child.

Granted, this has the heavy feel of the movie "Minority Report" taken to its ultimate limits, and the road to 2024 will undoubtedly be bumpy and filled with controversy related to privacy. Over its first decade, Facebook has been no stranger to controversy, specifically about privacy controls, and it is to the company's credit that its growth has continued despite such concerns.

“Granted, this has the heavy feel of the movie 'Minority Report' taken to its ultimate limits”

This time, however, given the amount of information disclosed, Facebook will need to execute as flawlessly as possible. If it gets the privacy component wrong and infuriates its users, its survival is not guaranteed. Some other startup, maybe from China or maybe a US-based open source venture, will step in and grab that territory. And there is much to grab, with the world population soaring to 8 billion people by 2024. But if Facebook does get it right, it can easily grab half that population.

Is this an optimistic scenario or a Big Brother nightmare? There are a vast number of ways that this might potentially make our lives better and happier. And there are just as many ways that Facebook can go awry. If the main driver is to use the technology for invasive and intrusive paths toward profit, Facebook's future may well be questionable. If it can incorporate a real and active impetus to do the right thing for humanity, it will be much more successful in the years ahead than it has been in the past decade.

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    • Tony H
    • Consultant
    You fail to mention the significant privacy abuses FB has committed (they have been sued several times already) and in places like the EU they are even more attuned to this that in the U.S. because most consumers are not aware, at least not until after the fact, that the private data has been collected and sold on to others. Other companies, like Acxiom, D&B for small business, Choicepoint (Reed Elsevier) etc. are already in the data gathering business, not to mention Google. What makes FB so special? What makes you or FB think we all want this?
    • Brandon Farwell
    • Student, Hbs
    Location-based offers in real time hasn't been cracked well...yet. Foursquare is trying but the active "check-in" is preventing a frictionless experience. What if Facebook bought Foursquare as an initial strategy to own location-based services?
    • Larissa
    I agree wholeheartedly with Tony H. Also the premise that adult lives after college are this intertwined is a false assumption in my opinion. After 30 years old where your "friends" are and what they are doing is fun (at best) to see on Facebook but you don't really care. I say this because the social aspect is the only thing that makes Facebook special versus the other data gathering businesses.
    • Edward Mrosso
    • Founder & Managing Partner, Mrosso & Associates Advocates
    FB should have different models for different parts of the World, no shoe fits all. I am in Tanzania - East Africa we have strong culture, and privacy is important, therefore if they want to grow in Africa, which has a huge potential they should study the cultures and custom made the programs. Mobile phone technology transformed Africa faster than any part of the world, M Pesa money transfer is growing rapidly and many more. With the right approach they will concur this continent.
    • Stan Tims
    • Product Management, IBM
    FB will be gone or essential irrelevant by 2024, at least in its current form, as it offers no commercial value. It offers social value that savvy technologists are doing their best to monetize with screen scraping, social analytics, etc. FB will move aside for the next wave of social interaction systems. The replacement, one that will have commercial value, will be the inventor of innovative, technology-centric, low-cost, intelligent privacy management services.
    • Steven Copertino
    • Digital Marketing & Social Media Consultant, Copertino Digital Consulting @scopertino
    I agree with you. To borrow an old quote from Mark Twain - "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" - I think this applies to Facebook as well.

    I was just having this same conversation with my 16 year old daughter who left Facebook over a year ago in favor of Twitter. I explained how later on in life she will likely return to Facebook to stay in touch with her friends and family, who will have moved away and started their own families.

    Facebook is more about experience and major life event sharing, while Twitter is about real-time updates and current information.

    As for your point about the evolution of Facebook through the use of new technology, this is exactly what Google is in the process of doing by connecting all of its accounts and devices together and employing (optional) automatic updating and sharing across all of its platforms.

    Good article!

    Steve Copertino
    • Erwin G. Pfuhler
    • General Manager, anovastar GmbH
    Excellent article!
    Indeed, aggregation of data and its intelligent to benefit the users is the core of Facebook's future. Neglecting privacy would be a threat to FBs business. Gaining so much marketing power, what would this mean for the business round the corner? Can they avoid FB and survive without it? Will they have any alternatives? Another question, which psychologists and sociologists will have to answer, is whether our social lives get automated and will we decrease or even increase our social capabilities?
    Excellent article!
    • Sensei
    • IT Program Manager, Private
    I dont think Facebook or any other such sites are truly a "social networking sites" ..they have transformed to "Private network" and every profile is locked safely and securely...once upon a time ..while u r surfing facebook u might have felt like you are walking in your local street towards your home and all the houses on the streets are open with no doors at all....now all the doors are closed and u have just a street to walk but does not useful right...so this has become a truly private privacy chat rooms..and nothing more than that... in this world..people just go crazy abt watever "new" comes rather than whatever "good" comes...so this is just a bubble effect...
    • Yuv
    From my perspective, the scenario you are depicting is a nightmare dependency, no matter whether it will be based on Facebook or on other competing "social" services. It is already bad enough that people have lost the ability to read maps because they rely on the GPS in their smartphones, now they will also lose the ability to plan and will ultimately delegate their lives (and their wallets) to machines controlled by commercial interests? Dumbing down people cannot be the right thing for humanity.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Facebook has been one of the fastest growing attractions of this century. As things seem to be developing, people are keen to open up to the external world and share their personal lives thereby becoming more and more transparent. Whether this is a healthy trend is debatable.
    Man has developed inquisitiveness to know about others whereas he needs first to know his own real Self and attempt to get answer to "Who am I?" from the Core. Hence, superficiality is enveloping him. Sometimes I wonder whether it is worthwhile to take in too much of garbage by way of dumping information, which ultimately, have no intrinsic worth.
    A reasonable extent of creating a circle of known ones to be tapped on regular basis may be alright but unbridled expansion of the circle of contacts is an avoidable weight and stress on one's memory system.
    • Rahul Vyas
    • Assistant Professor, Pacific Business School. PAHER University, Udaipur
    The future of Fb is probably not as rosy as one would believe it to be , I say so because the evolution of the consumer is rapidly in progress and so Whatt'sAp had to be amalgamated by FB ,but it does not stop there so FB will have to evolve and monetize its offerings but the crucial aspect is the issue of privacy which will of utmost importance to any netizen, a case in point being PRISM being a monster in the minds of all the www folk.
    • Anil Purushothaman
    • Associate Professor, Institute of Professional Education & Research (IPER), Bhopal, India
    I agree with the comments from Tony H, Larissa, Rahul and the rest of all here who agree that FB has a doomed future. What I dislike about FB (and this article also) is that they are redefining the meaning of social life as "entertainment" only. I do not see any benefit to the mankind and the society with Facebook, its just a phase that people will soon realize is not worth giving all the attention it has gained.....unless Mark Zuckerberg realizes it early and moulds Facebook and the huge database into some useful stuff.