A month or so ago in the days after Elon Musk trudged into Twitter headquarters with a sink and flushed a bit more than half the company down the drain, I wondered if Facebook would consider capitalizing on chaos at Tweet Central by unveiling a what’s-happening-now competitor to the little blue bird.
Turns out, that’s exactly what they were thinking too.
“Twitter is in crisis and Meta needs its mojo back,” one Meta employee wrote in a post, the NY Times reported today. “Let’s go for their bread and butter.”
If Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to get his mojo back and recover from his premature and so far disastrous flirtation with the metaverse, he will do just that. But he won’t stop there. Because if Zuckerberg truly understands Meta’s real competitive advantage and its current competitive malaise, he will let a thousand flowers bloom from the single stem in Meta has truly has lasting and sustainable value.
I’m talking, of course, about the friend graph.
Zuckerberg’s strategy to date when faced with competition has been to layer, accrete, and add. That’s why Facebook has a million features and far too many different ways to share, with stories and reels and posts and messages and probably others I can’t think of at the moment. And that’s why Facebook, as a platform, continues to lose ground against TikTok, which has essentially one action (the thumb flip to whatever is next) plus a much simpler — and therefore more immersive, less disruptive — user experience.
The thinking seems to have been: X is happening in the world. X is a threat. X must be something we do. Let’s add X to the Facebook app.
And there have been a lot of Xs.
- Stories on Facebook and Instagram, borrowed from Snapchat.
- Facebook Gaming, competing with YouTube and Twitch.
- Facebook Dating, borrowed from Tinder and Match.
- Facebook Places, inspired by FourSquare (now Swarm).
- Facebook Groups, copied from Reddit.
- Facebook Live, inspired by Periscope (which was acquired by Twitter and sunsetted).
- Encrypted chat in WhatsApp, thanks to Signal.
- Facebook Horizon, its metaverse foundation, borrowed from Second Life.
- Marketplace, courtesy of eBay and Craigslist.
All of that follows simplistic thinking: we have built something that accidentally or on purpose became globally huge, globally significant. There’s a new thing that is become big, that people like, and that could be a threat to our success. Let’s add this new thing to our existing successful thing … rather than taking the risk of starting something entirely new and failing.
(Because, yes, there have been plenty of failures.)
- And more …
But while Twitter appears to have stabilized somewhat after the unceremonious axing of thousands of employees and contractors (though there’s ongoing issues with ads and monetization) here is an opportunity for Meta to reinvent itself which, perhaps surprisingly, follows some of Zuckerberg’s original plan. At one point at least, Zuckerberg saw Facebook as a utility providing a social service to the internet: a social layer to all the websites and apps and virtual spaces we digitally inhabit.
Imagine that friend graph as something you can import to a new app and have an instant community in a new experience. Not, maybe to every app — antitrust awaits — but certainly to new apps from Meta.
All of its accretions could then be peeled away.
- Just like Reels: stand-alone app, but with your friends.
- Just like original Instagram but with no stories: Instagram Pure, with your friend graph and followers
- Just Marketplace, without the social
- And so on …
The entire massive lumbering ox that is the existing Facebook app can remain, but people who prefer something more simple or pure can get what they want. This has a chance of retaining existing users who are fatigued of Facebook’s scope and scale and increasingly user-hostile busy-ness. There are many of them, and not all of Facebook’s recent revenue drop can conveniently be blamed on Apple’s privacy policies.
Perhaps even more importantly, it frees tens of thousands of talented Meta employees who just want to build something new, something innovative, something interesting, and allows them to do that. Which the general public can then try and potentially like and use, while not worrying about leaving their friend graph behind. (Unified messaging, which Facebook is building, is a significant factor here.)
Why do people stay on Facebook?
Mostly because our friends and family are there. That is the true value, not the current Facebook app or Facebook experience.
Meta should build a new Twitter. But Meta should be building a hundred new experiences in a hundred different ways. Many of them will fail. That is the nature of innovation, which lack of competition in the social space has somewhat insulated Facebook from. But some of them will succeed, and some will likely be massive new opportunities. Maybe the original Facebook will die, but that is not a problem for Meta as a company if it has dozens of other successes.