Facebook is culture. It’s etiquette. It’s inside our language and our love lives. And it changed us all in eight short years.
Our relationship with mainstream Facebook? It’s complicated.
We love watching far-flung friends grow up before our eyes. We love sharing our accomplishments in pursuit of the life-affirming Like. We hate fumbling through layers of privacy, maintaining relationships with people we dislike, and suffering the minutiae of life in the town square.
These notions will persist, since social media isn’t going anywhere. But every great empire falls. As its forerunners did, Facebook will grow heavy under its own girth, decay from within, and collapse.
The question is, when and why will it happen?
Many analysts agree it won’t be soon. It’s likely we’ll look back on Facebook 2012 as a golden age for the company. Its traffic and user base have climbed ever skyward thanks to its posture not only as a social network, but as an identity platform — a critical piece of online infrastructure.
"I actually don’t think anything would kill Facebook in any near-term scenario," says David Kirkpatrick, the journalist who literally wrote the book on Facebook’s ascendance. "But I do think that Facebook could enter into a phase of decline, based on a lot of different possible developments."
The Regulatory Challenges of Building a "Parallel Internet"
For decades, the Internet has been a distributed entity. No one person or company owns it. There are rules about names and numbers — how computers can talk to each other. But if you want to access or create content there, no one can stop you.
But imagine a world where Facebook is so critical to personal and corporate identity that you couldn’t communicate effectively without it. In order to access this "parallel Internet" you’d have to go through a single company. Legally speaking, that gets dicey, according to Kirkpatrick.
"I think regulatory interference is one thing that could radically hobble Facebook, probably not kill it," he explains. "Facebook’s role in the global economy is becoming so complex and central to communications in a very, very fundamental way. The responsibilities that come upon a company in that role are really, really challenging."
To understand the implications, don’t think of Facebook as a website or even a social network, but as a telecom company.
"It’s really about the consequences of a company controlling a federal piece of Internet infrastructure, particularly one that has to do with identity," says Kirkpatrick. "I happen to believe that Mark [Zuckerberg] is very cognisant of those responsibilities and takes them very, very seriously."
Having spent a lot of time with Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick is confident the CEO knows what he’s up against. But the pitfalls of government regulation can thwart even the most prepared.
"Regulatory interference is one thing that could radically hobble Facebook."
"Tech companies typically disregard governments until well into their lives, and historically don’t have a lot of lobbyists. Facebook basically disproves that rule. Hiring [COO] Sheryl [Sandberg], Mark, at a very early stage of the company’s development, signaled his own understanding of the central role of government in Facebook’s success." says Kirkpatrick, referring to Sandberg’s prior role as chief of staff for the US Treasury Department.
Beyond regulatory challenges, the very notion of an Internet operated by a single company defies the promise of the web, according to Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the social news site Reddit and author of the forthcoming book Without Your Permission.
"A private Internet is the antithesis of the open Internet, which is a public good we all own, work and play on," Ohanian says. "I don’t believe it’s sustainable, because it’s the openness of the Internet that makes it so valuable. It’s the most level playing field in the world."
Ohanian is confident that the majority of web users won’t stand for a closed future.
"I can launch an idea today and start drinking the milkshake of all the incumbents tomorrow, based solely on the merit of my creation. I shouldn’t have to get permission to build on someone’s 'private Internet,"' he explains.
"People will be content in Facebook’s Internet until the experience sours or something better comes along."
Mashable is the largest independent news source covering digital culture, social media and technology.
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