Facebook's fortunes are faltering on the stock market, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. While pundits point to a number of culprits -- declining user activity, competition with mobile, and so on -- these are just symptoms of a more fundamental flaw at the heart of the social network. Ironically, it's even emblazoned in the company’s IPO filing as its core operating philosophy:
Authentic Identity. We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends, and sharing your genuine interests online create more engaging and meaningful experiences... Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience, and we believe that it is central to the future of the web.
The Facebook corporation's premise is patently, provably wrong. Quite a lot of our genuine interests are too intimate, embarrassing, controversial, shocking, depressing, or even just too boring to share with some or most of our friends. Facebook's very nature as a real-name social network forces us to interact in a constant state of self-censorship, always anticipating the potential disapproval from each and every one of our friends (and our friends' friends) in every update, like, comment, and share.
Facebook has attempted to obviate this problem by allowing users to transmit selected updates to selected friends, but besides being unwieldy, that fails to address a fundamental fact: All of us have genuine interests we would never share with anyone, even our very closest friends, certainly not in an online context connected to our real-life names. Beyond the petty incursions of personal privacy Facebook makes us face everyday, Internet sociologist danah boyd has pointed out how social networks' demand for real names can even be oppressive to the underprivileged.
There are real financial consequences to all this. Where Facebook has hoped to fully capture the social media marketplace, their rival Twitter keeps growing and keeps earning money. One reason for this: Twitter doesn't require real names. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted:
[Twitter] doesn't really care what your real name is -- all it wants to do is connect you to the information that you care about. And if that information happens to come from a 'real' person, then so be it; but if it comes from a pseudonym, then that’s fine too.
This pseudonymous ecosystem also makes Twitter more valuable than Facebook as an advertising platform. Since their real-life names aren't necessarily connected to their Tweets, Twitter users are far more likely to express and engage with a fuller range of their actual interests.
We have pretty much reached a point where Facebook enjoys 50 percent market penetration of all 2 billion Internet users in the world. Historically, Facebook usage plateaus whenever it reaches 50 percent of a country's online population. With so few countries left to conquer, I believe it's likely the social network has finally reached the limit of its usefulness as a platform for expression.
Outside its well-trimmed gates, the pseudonymous Internet will continue to grow and thrive -- not just on Twitter, but on all the many other online sites where pseudonyms still dominate, such as YouTube, Reddit, and Flickr.
It's difficult to calculate just how large the pseudonymous Internet is, but in aggregate, it's likely to be just as active as Facebook itself. For instance, the total user base of virtual worlds and MMO (massively multiplayer online) games, where people express themselves through avatar names, is probably over 200 million. In great part, the pseudonymous Internet will continue because of Facebook, as people seek places online to express who they really are, unfettered from the restrictions of their real-life names.
None of this means Facebook is doomed, and I seriously doubt forecasts of its demise by 2020. Some level of authentic real-world identity is important in some online social contexts (particularly among our pre-existing networks of family and friends). That's why Facebook has managed to capture so much of our Internet activity. But because of its very structure, its actual centrality on the Internet will never be obtained. To assume otherwise is like arguing that just because everyone's name is listed there, the telephone book is still important.
Ă˘â‚¬â€ť Wagner James Au is a writer and consultant in social media and gaming. He blogs about virtual worlds at New World Notes. Follow him on Twitter: @SLHamlet.