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24 August 2011

Is love for Facebook waning?

Rachel Hawkes, account director, Elemental By Rachel Hawkes

As a society (and not just in the UK), we tend to get behind someone when they're on their way up.  We want them to succeed, we love an underdog don’t we?  But... just don’t get too big.  We don’t really like that. 

That doesn’t just apply to people, think about some of the biggest companies in the world and how our feelings have changed about them once they started flexing their muscles.  It’s ok for a company to get big and be successful, but we don’t like it when we see that that success makes them a tad too powerful.

I could draw comparisons here to numerous tech and non-tech companies, but what I really want to talk about is Facebook, and whether Facebook is now deemed to be too big. 

Social network quick statistics:
Social network users worldwide 2011


Facebook users have been continually frustrated over the years, and rightly so.  The layout and functionality have been changed, often with little to no notice and frequently without any user input beforehand.  Sometimes, these changes have seemed ill thought out and rash – such as Beacon, an advertising tool that wasn’t announced until after the fact, which Mark Zuckerberg later had to pull amid outrage of privacy fears from its users.  It has a history of introducing new products, particularly in the areas of privacy, that it doesn’t announce and makes opt-out rather than opt-in the default.

Given that, naturally Facebook has annoyed its users over the years.  

There’s been three significant developments that suggest Facebook is losing favour, and not just with those of us who are immersed in digital.  


President Nicolas Sarkozy and Mark ZuckerbergIn June, French officials banned the words Twitter and Facebook being used in French media, unless they are specifically part of the story that forbids media outlets from encouraging participation from viewers via their Facebook or Twitter profiles.  The French government deem it as subliminal and/or blatant promotion, and that it’s unfair to smaller social networks that will struggle for attention.

Brands and news outlets have been mentioning ‘find us on Facebook or Twitter’ at for news report, websites and likewise brands also mention it direct and digital promotions.  There aren’t many providers at this point in time that enjoy a free ride off billions of advertising by a simple mention or two.

It’s a significant move from French media, and I can certainly see their point about smaller social networks.  However, it totally dismisses the fact that these networks get mentioned because of the sheer mass of viewers that use them.  It’s not as if a media outlet or brand will encourage their audiences to engage with them on a particular social network if a disproportionately small amount of users are on them.  Twenty five percent of French people are reportedly Facebook users.

In terms of what it may mean for Facebook, France has historically felt uncomfortable with any non-French speaking entity becoming dominant, perhaps for fear of diluting French culture.  Some years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would build its own super search engine in lieu of Google being the default search engine for the country.  Nothing yet has materialised though.


In the last few days, one German state has made an incredible announcement.  The Data Protection Commissioner’s Office (ULD) has ordered all businesses in that state to shut down fan pages and remove any Facebook plug-ins from their websites, including the Like button.  The ULD state that these features of Facebook are in violation of German and European data law, particularly as data is transferred and held in the US.  Companies have until the end of September 2011 to comply, otherwise they could face fines of up to €50,000.

The ULD credits Facebook gaining a market value of more than €50 billion to its ability to track, mine and store users data for up to two years.  It says that German businesses shouldn’t shift their responsibility for data protection onto Facebook or users.  It goes further by saying that this is only the beginning of its ‘comprehensive analysis’ of Facebook, and they highlight how the social network continually changes its terms and conditions.

This is a really interesting move from Germany.  The country does have other popular social networks, such as Mein VZ, and other specific networks for uni students etc.  The ULD say European social networks take users privacy and data protection much more seriously.

Not to say that Google’s and Facebook’s data practices are held and managed in the same way, but it does beg the question whether the ULD will take a similar view point of Google+ and the +1 button, and in fact, if this stretches beyond social networks, to areas like search and localisation.  Last year, Google allowed its German users to blur out their houses on Google Maps, Street View.


When Google+ launched in June, media headlines that included the words ‘Facebook killer’ dominated.  Much as they did back in 2007 when Facebook opened its doors to non-students and was deemed a potential ‘MySpace killer.’

Google needs to compete with Facebook on a social footing.  To do that it has to really listen to its users and make Google+ everything that Facebook users feel they are lacking.  If you think about it, that’s just what Facebook did a handful of years ago when it surpassed MySpace as the most popular social network.  

MySpace was difficult to use and required its uses to either understand basic HTML, download free or paid templates to install in order to have a personalised profile.  It was inflexible and rigid, not allowing its users the freedom to properly communicate with friends and share the content they liked easily.  There was no proper alternative until Facebook came along, offering an easy to use interface that could be personalised (so far as the Facebook structure allowed) without the user having to have any technical-know-how.  They offered an easier and more mature way of connecting with friends and sharing things of interest – particularly applications in the early days, something which MySpace lacked.

The historical context of MySpace and Facebook is important when we look at Google+ and Facebook.  From all appearances, it looks as though Google is endeavouring to do exactly what Facebook did some years ago; it’s considered what social users what people are looking for (and finding lacking), and building it.  

So, is this beginning of the end of Facebook’s world domination?  Is the social network now just too big for its boots and users and countries have had enough?

Just after writing this, Facebook announced on its blog the addition of a whole set of new privacy options, making it easier for people to control the content they want people to see.  This includes the ability to approve photos you were tagged in before they are posted to your wall, and controls on each and every post if you want to only reach a specific group.  Would they have done this had Google’s approach to privacy with Circles not been so publicly appreciated?


Image credit: President Nicolas Sarkozy's official Facebook page

Categories: Technology, Social media

Tags: Facebook, Google, Google+, Twitter, social networks, microblogging, France, Germany, privacy

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