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The future of friends: Who can topple Facebook?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Facebook has won the social networking wars, right? The likes of MySpace, Bebo and Friends Reunited have fallen by the wayside as Mark Zuckerberg's friend machine trundles onwards, to complete its mission of world domination. Or maybe the story isn't over, and someone else will come along to show us a better way of networking?

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In the final episode of The Secret History of Social Networking on Radio 4, we look at where this phenomenon is heading next - and whether Facebook will continue to rule the roost. We hear from a clutch of new networks, with different ideas of how we will live our online lives in the future.

For Foursquare, it's a vision of life as a kind of boy scouts' game, on the move sharing your location with friends and collecting points, badges and mayorships along the way. But can they make even a dent in Facebook's appeal, when their ideas have already been copied by the much bigger network?

Path, the San Francisco network founded by a former Facebook executive, believes we all want to share more of our lives, in the form of photos and video clips, with a far more restricted collection of friends. Its idea is a smartphone app where you record key moments for your nearest and dearest, rather than telling all to the world. But, despite managing to attract quite staggering sums from investors, the start-up seems to be making little progress in winning users over to its concept.

And then there's Kiltr, a social network which believes the future of friendship is local. Kiltr is aimed at Scots and the Scottish diaspora around the world. Its founder Brian Hughes Halferty says giant networks like Facebook don't suit everybody: "There's a lot of noise in the bigger networks," he explained. "And what we'll see happening is the user base of these networks gradually splitting off into more fragmented networks, based on specific interests, and potentially shared values, even a localised, regionalised approach."

And Kiltr isn't too fussy about whether you're actually Scottish - I've joined with no credentials whatsoever.

There's no reason why local and specialised networks should not prosper in the shadow of Facebook, though they may struggle to put much of dent in the audience of a site which has shown, from Egypt to East Finchley, that it can be all things to all people.

A bigger threat may be mounting concerns about security and privacy. A number of rival networks are being set up with the explicit promise that they will give users more control over their data and their privacy than is on offer from Facebook.

Diaspora attracted plenty of interest when it announced its plans last June in the middle of a row over Facebook's latest privacy settings. Its founders quickly raised a sizeable sum from online well-wishers, with their plan to give people more control over who sees any aspect of their online activity.

Nothing much seems to have happened since, and Diasora looks like it might struggle to find enough people who really care about this issue. But one of the founders Daniel Grippi insists the idea still has widespread appeal amidst concerns about Facebook: "Even non-technical people understand that this is a problem, and that something has to be done about it in the short term. Owning your own data is a huge selling point and a natural step forward."

And others are even more strident in their view that Facebook has taken web users in the wrong direction. Johan Stael von Holstein whose MyCube network allows anyone to keep a safe copy of all the data they have put on a social network, says parents in particular need to be aware of the dangers of Facebook's social graph: "Their kids will never have to go to an interview again because they'll just be recruited on the social graph that Facebook holds for them, that they're selling to companies... this is a nightmare that George Orwell would be jealous of."

Facebook's sheer scale is now putting it in the firing-line - from cybercriminals who see it as a great place to launch an attack, from parents worried that it is not doing enough to protect children from stalkers and cyber-bullies, from neuroscientists concerned about what it is doing to our brains and our concepts of friendship.

The network does seem aware of these threats to its reputation. Yesterday a senior member of its privacy team spent an hour briefing journalists about all the ways Facebook is trying to make sure its users can lead happy networking lives, free from the attention of stalkers, spammers, bullies and bugs.

But when I asked whether the emergence of rivals like Diaspora had focused minds, he replied "I don't know much about it to be honest," and asked me to explain what it was about. He, like just about everyone I've met from Mark Zuckerberg's empire, seemed supremely disinterested in what was going on elsewhere in the networking world, focusing entirely on what is going on inside the business.

And, for now at least, that seems a perfectly sensible approach. By my reckoning, more than a quarter of the world's two billion internet users are now on Facebook, and traffic to the site keeps growing. By one measure it has now overtaken Google. With that many friends, no wonder nobody at Facebook is losing sleep over the threat from rivals.


  • Comment number 1.

    My friends and I have been using LiveJournal to keep in contact since 1991 for over a decade. It's a good place to keep a journal, and the communities there are excellent. Best of all, it's not swamped by children and the illiterate!

    Who needs Facebook?

  • Comment number 2.

    Facebook security tends to be something people only care about when there's been some kind of breach, and then only for 5 minutes. The trouble is that it's a complex business, and the more control people (think they) want, the more complex it becomes.

    I experienced this at work, where we overhauled the security model in one of our products, giving administrators incredibly fine grained control over what users can and can't access/update. The only feedback we've had - on a major change which delivered exactly what was requested - is "it's too complicated - can it be simpler?"

    Uncle Ben said it best: "With great power comes great responsibility".

  • Comment number 3.

    I think the only people who can "topple" Facebook is Facebook themselves. I use it sparingly, along with a lot of my friends and don't really put anything personal on becuase of privacy concerns. With changes like the recently reported adverts on the go or some rubbish, and keep changing around the privacy options etc etc they will push people away...

  • Comment number 4.

    As number 3 says, Facebook can only lose this "war". They have reached such critical mass, why would you go elsewhere? And if you do, you need to take your "friends" with you. You and I might, but will your mum?

    The battle is won, Facebook reigns supreme. Only they can mess it up now.

  • Comment number 5.

    everything has a shelf life. look at myspace for example and yahoo chat before that. something will come along that will offer something completley new, it will probably involve free phone calls and better gaming than facebook offers. i think the main competitor will come on the iphone. this new playstation phone is gonna change a lot of things in a couple of months. the one thing good that facebook and twitter has is the massive free PR campaign they have from the likes of the BBC. Facebook is so three years ago :)

  • Comment number 6.

    Facebook aside social networking has always been about the local or the subject specific, it was before Facebook (forums, chat sites, blogs etc) and will be going forward. Yes Facebook and Twitter have their specific type of spaces wrapped up, but they serve a purpose that is quite specific and can be integrated with the subject specifc sites and networks. Facebook see's itself as a platform and if it is going to fail it will be because the focus is on this rather than doing what they do better.

  • Comment number 7.

    Before Facebook, everyone thought MySpace couldn't be toppled. Bebo was once the network of choice for many, especially teens. Both MySpace and Bebo are now virtually worthless.

    History has shown that no matter how big you are, it only takes a couple of people in a bedroom to 'go one better' - you can never assume Facebook will always rule the social network scene.

    I predict Twitter will overtake Facebook within 3 years. Perhaps even the Brits can challenge Facebook with the new 'wevu' social network.

  • Comment number 8.

    It depends if any of the other businesses are capable of creating a 'viral loop' and can obtain a critical mass of users to sustain growth.

    Check out 'Viral Loop: The Power of Pass-it-on' by Adam Penenberg. It's a fascinating study in to the growth of businesses like Myspace/ Facebook/ et al.

    We are all concerned by the security of our information online. However, I would be less concerned by hackers. Than by the sale of personal information by Facebook to businesses and most worryingly, the ownership of shares in Facebook by Robert Theil, the neo-con activist openly commited to destroying 'nature' as he calls it or democracy as I call it. Or how about In-Q-Tel, in case you are unaware who these guys are. They are the venture capital wing of the CIA set up after 9-11!

    Now that is scary stuff! Suffice to say I don't really post on Facebook anymore!

  • Comment number 9.

    I think people don't really wan't another mass market social networking site. This might sound presumptuous but people just need something to be able to connect to with anybody else. They can only do this if new people are already on the same platform as them, FB has now become the most used network and so it will now be the point of call for new adopters, why would you go to somewhere where none or very few of your friends are?

    People who already have FB, will have an inertia against trying anything new, apart from the early adopter/geeks amongst us, but we are in the minority. Such niche users will find something to take advantage of in new networks perhaps a specific hobby or professional interests that will require a more specialist network, this is where Ning and LinkedIn (groups) can support such very small specialist groups.

    FB now is effectively a platform like Windows OS, it has become the dominant one due to a need for a standard which everyone can use. However just like in the OS debate, there is room for the specialist OS like Mac OS X and Linux etc small niche players. No doubt also like OS we will start to eventually see inter-operability between networks and soon enough be able to add a linkedin contact to ones Facebook account or vice-versa, no doubt with a host of issues of how such a gateway will be controlled and a new slew of privacy issues.

    The war for dominant social network, has been over for a while now. Where there is room for competitive position is the Apps market - FB has recently released its Places Deals app so that users can get bargains (which in the current economic climate is turning into a national sport), this is an interesting move of internalising apps within FB mobile, something that previously was really only done in the desktop web version. I've been waiting for the VoucherCloud app on Android for the best part of the last year, but here comes in FB in one swoop.

    However, competition between mobile Apps is also getting hotter e.g. with now planning to charg, will we see a drop in price from Spotify? Also the Apps games market is increasing at a rapid slice, enough to now have caught the attention of console makers.

  • Comment number 10.

    I've been on Linkedin for some time. It's much more for adults with professions. Although it appears job-orientated, there are some "social" features to it. I'm a fan of Linkedin and I hope it continues to grow for the professional community.

  • Comment number 11.

    If Facebook becomes uncool amongst kids and they decide somewhere else is cooler then that could be the beginning of the end for Facebook. It won't disappear overnight as a lot of 'adults' use it as well, but the popularity of social networking sites will always be driven by teenagers.

  • Comment number 12.

    The best solution is not to use a social networking site at all. We have a wonderful invention called the world-wide web, which is an open standard and used by millions of people around the world. Keep your blog on a blog site, your photos on a photo-sharing site, videos on a video-sharing site, etc. then let people follow you by adding feeds from those sites to their reader app of choice. That way, people can create their own, custom version of the Facebook wall. If they want to see when you have uploaded new photos, but don't care to read updates of every detail of your daily life, they only need subscribe to your photo feed. The problem with Facebook is that it forces people to become members if they want to view information put there by someone they know, creating a captive audience. It's time people broke free from the grip of proprietary sites and rediscovered the free and open web.

  • Comment number 13.

    It seems that Face Book just wants to get bigger and bigger, how big can it get. How much power and wealth does Mark want. There's going to be a point when it can't get bigger, if you can't build on something you got to make it bigger, that's when people get bored and you become the creator of your own downfall.

    The thing that gets me, is how Face book has become this big thing which people just can't seem to get off, you see in class in major tasks. People clicking and social networking away, its advanced online communication. But it's also become the axe over education and academic performance. people would rather chat and virtually chat than get on with their work. The way I see the whole infrastructure, technology has advanced as our social fabric has worn away. Why bother going out if you can chat on line, why do your shopping if you can get it off the site, why read a hard back book when you can look at it on a screen. For every single minute of the day a person may never leave a screen, pressing away at an i phone, i pod, black berry, computer screen, TV screen while possibly playing on an X box 360. The worlds gone techno wired mad, if we don't get our fix, we go crazy and irritable. There's a serious problem thats far to late to fix, its everywhere, technology you can't escape it. Like the knew alien invasion, its here and won the battle, it has our attention and we can't get away from it.

  • Comment number 14.

    I use LJ to keep in contact with friends both in the UK and outside (Germany, USA, Canada, etc.). The majority of them are real friends who I know in real life, only a few who I only know online. I'm not interested in 'followers' or masses of people I don't know, LJ is simply another communication medium.

  • Comment number 15.

    I think there will come a time when Twitter overtakes Facebook, it may be a few years down the line but more & moe people are seeing the benefit's of instant information that is availible via twitter.

  • Comment number 16.

    Has Social Networking become the new opium of the masses?

    The world can at last easily share their concerns (about climate change, diminishing resources, financial crisis)without leaving their seats.

    The revolution will not be televised, we'll just google for updates on the crisis.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think any challenge to FB dominance will be driven by the nature of information that we log, view, and share rather than the people with whom we share. Networking is here to stay, no doubt about that, and it is becoming relatively easy to move networks from one platform to another through APIs such as Gigya. The question we should ask ourselves is: is sharing photos, videos, and our stream-of-consciousness as good as it gets?

    For my money I'd back sites like GazetMe - - which allows users to log and track their achievements, skills and talents, linking individual achievements with relevant contacts. Having a valuable personal history is far better than a glorified address book.

  • Comment number 18.

    Facebook has moved on from being just a social networking tool. With Windows buying shares its increasingly been seen as unique identifier of individuals that can be hooked into by mobile phone contact lists and no doubt will be used in other spheres as identity management has been something of a wholly grail for several years in the world of computing.

    My main issue with the application is that its a little too complicated in separating out domains of contacts which inhibits how you express yourself using it. I have work contacts on my friend list and I would love to just segment them out into an entirely different communication entity. Likewise family, likewise friends and likewise external business contacts and any other groups. It would be vastly improved if these spheres can be easily and clearly separated so you don't inadvertently post a rude comment to a work colleague (probably about work!). I think this would greatly enhance it as a tool for actual sharing socially.

    At work we are testing out Yammer and it is a much simplified version of Facebook with Twitter follow add ons. I like the way it works and from the context of seeing what is happening in the company (a global project management organisation) and spreading news about what your group is doing it works well and has been adopted virally at an immense pace as a result.

    Facebook really need to decide where their core business lies and focus on that. At the moment that direction is not clear. However, a partnership with Microsoft may control where they go.

  • Comment number 19.

    #15 Tbh I don't think Twitter will take over from Facebook as they are compatible to work together, one with the other. However, there are a few people who use Facebook in a way that Twitter would be more effective.

  • Comment number 20.

    #10 - I like LinkedIn as well. Its very good for managing business contacts and interactions. The interface could maybe a bit more attractive but functionally it works well.

  • Comment number 21.

    #9 Excellent post Haich. I would be very interested in seeing if FB applications start to challenge the other mobile applications. I think when the Windows mobile devices catches up with Android devices and iPhones will be when we see what happens, as I suspect Microsoft will be using FB as their vehicle to carry mobile applications.

  • Comment number 22.

    As someone who doesn't generally use Facebook (although I have a rarely used account on there), I have to say - who cares?

    There is more to the internet than Facebook, and if you find it necessary to keep in touch via Facebook rather than using more traditional means of keeping in touch then perhaps you should re-evaluate just who your friends are and why they don't keep in touch any other way than via Facebook.

    I have quite a wide circle of friends, and none of them use Facebook, and we get on in life quite well, and we always end up meeting in a pub somewhere local every now and then.

    Facebook has it's place I suppose but it is (or at least should be) largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

  • Comment number 23.

    I was looking on Facebook for a person I wanted to contact. However I found both my page and his hidden behind the new security. And I hadn't time to sort out mine. In the end I resorted to Google where rather foolishly he had left an image of his email address.

  • Comment number 24.

    Diaspora has advanced to a usable state now. It is in alpha testing and you can:
    1. install a "pod" on your own server
    2. use Diaspora without an invitation at a third party pod
    3. use the main Diaspora server - so long as you have an invitation.

    Here is a list of available pods -

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 26.

    Facebook is the one social network I refuse to touch with a barge pole. The lack of decent privacy and the inability to segregate topics and associations makes it useless, in my opinion. You may as well publish a very personal diary in a national newspaper.

    If you wanted to make a comment about work to your friends and family, it's virtually impossible to keep said comment from a colleague who knows you're on facebook. If you wanted to make embarrassing comments about your obsession with a TV show that aired last night, you'd better hope that no one you run into the next day will tease you. Just had an argument with a family member and want to vent about it? Better plan on dividing your entire clan of relatives and sitting through a bitter feud.

    I've got a permanent Livejournal membership and don't plan on going anywhere else (unless they increase their links with Facebook, in which case I shall move to Dreamwidth-one of the Livejournal clones). The journal allows me to make posts on whatever topic I want and have them filtered to specific people (with privacy settings that actually work) and the communities allow me to share my hobbies and interests with a huge amount of people from all over the world. That's all I need from my social networks.

  • Comment number 27.

    My main issue with Facebook is constant "upgrades" that each time seems to bring with it a new batch of bugs and glitches. The latest format runs dreadfully on my PC, missing links, photos not where they should be, chat windows that won't close etc. It's boderline unuseable and on that basis alone I'd seriously look at Facebook competitors. The issue is thuogh when other people are so entrenched with Facebook there's little that can be done except grumble and get on with it. Unless your friends switch as well there's not much "social networking" to be done! Facebook does need to sort these technical hitches out though, they're a constant annoyance and there can't just be me so exasperated with the whole idea that just giving up is tempting!

  • Comment number 28.

    I feel your arguement misses the point slightly. At the risk of being pedantic Facebook isn't A social network it is a social network software platform. It isn't one network of friends where everyone is connected it is multiple networks of friends and groups and it is that which is interesting.

    I don't care that Facebook has 500 million users only Facebook does.Not even brands who want to contact these people want to contact all of them just the ones that are relevent to them and usually people don't want brands to contact them in their personal space so where is the value?

    Brian Hughes from Kiltr is right that social networks will fragment. But then these networks have been around for years already they are called forums or online communities. Once the software to facilitate these forums improves in design so will their numbers grow.

    jonathan at post 12 is right don't use social networking at all re discover the power and freedom of the www. people will eventually.

  • Comment number 29.

    Firstly, I would like to pre-face this by saying I am a user of Facebook, and certainly not a luddite after working at the front edge of internet technologies for many years.

    Facebook and Twitter are now entrenched in an almost unassailable position of dominance.

    This is in no small part due to the degree to which they are favoured by technology journalists and media pundits in general.

    Take, for example, the fact that all BBC articles are tagged with the facility to immediately link those stories out accross these two social networks. I appreciate some other favoured outlets are hidden behind the "share this" icon, but immediacy is everything on the web. Why just these two? Why is such preferential treatment given to two private companies (other social networks are available!) by the BBC?

    I would venture to suggest that it is because the individuals in the BBC meeting that decided on this could not conceive of why anyone would object to such universally used services.

    Would anyone like to calculate what percentage of license fee payers actually use Twitter, and then compare this to the grossly disproportionate amount of free publicity this private organisation gets from the publicly funded BBC?

    If lazy journalists only consult the Twitteratti, then of course they will never hear any dissenting opinions.

  • Comment number 30.

    Most of the people I know are registered Facebook users but don't use it. I'd like to know how many stable long-term (>1 year) users Facebook has. I bet Mark Zuckerberg can't believe his luck: users adding content to his site for free for him to grow rich. Unbelievable. Mark Zuckerberg should be sharing the riches with his content providers - after all, the users have all the power. I think it's hilarious.

  • Comment number 31.

    I used facebook for 3 years and have decided recently to have my profile permanently deleted. Reason being? I've woken up to the fact that it actually adds nothing to my life. Literally nothing. My real 'friends' i have phone numbers and email addresses for. The comments on facebook (and twitter) are so utterly pointless and banal - it's full of self-importance, which is not an attractive quality in a person. It's a big 'ol waste of time.

  • Comment number 32.

    Why does everyone use Facebook? I watched The I.T Crowd on 4OD about FriendFace so funny, made me sure never to use Facebook again.
    Wake up people, all Mark Zuckerberg wants is money, the site is advertisment funded money money money!
    I use Tumblr now, so much better than Facebook, all the creative people are there. You can make your own themes, see cool artists Hi-def pictures, make funny gifs, the list goes on and on.
    Facebook in contrast has a boring Blue banner, low res pictures...yawn..some games..yawn..
    I feel the investors are getting nervous about how to get all their money back fast, I can see the future downfall of Facebook and that greedy ginger haired, colour blind loser Mark Zuckerburg.

  • Comment number 33.

    Facebook needs to be able to allow people to easily separate 'work' friends from 'home' friends otherwise it will face competition from new entrants aimed at the business market such as Chatter and Yamma. Email was first widely adopted as an internal communication mechanism within a single company, then moved to communication between companies. Only companies could afford the communications technology involved. Then as this technology became affordable people started using email at home to be able to work from home. A by-product was they started using their company email to communicate not just with 'work' friends but also with 'home' friends who also had company emails. They were perfectly able to segment communication with these two categories of friends within a single email account. So personal use of email was driven by the business world to the personal world. Facebook type communication, which has adoption driven from the personal world, has now started to reach the business world. However, it doesn't easily allow you to segment home and work friends - you become a friend, you see all (accepting groups doesn't really solve this easily). So either Facebook needs to re-architect to provide easier segmentation or a Facebook look-a-like such as Chatter or Yamma will start to drive adoption from the 'business world'. If you HAVE to use one of these products at work then it is inevitable you will start to use at home in place of Facebook. My guess is facebook will wake up to this and get there first, but you never know...

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 35.

    Facebooks security settings are fine.
    The problem is people can't be bothered to use them.
    You can limit what each of your friend see about you, if they can see your comments etc etc. Its just people are too lazy.

  • Comment number 36.

    @WelshBluebird1 - Exactly what I was thinking about selenityshiroi. Obviously doesn't know how to use Facebook properly. If you don't want people to see what you've posted, either don't post it, or block those people or a list containing those people from seeing that content. Simples!

  • Comment number 37.

    I had a facebook account for a shortwhile, but jumped off the bandwagon some time ago. I found it yet another thing to keep updated, but more importantly I found it an invasion of privacy. Quite simply, if you want privacy you will not be on facebook. It did not seem right that I could freely look through my friends random photos - it seemed more like stalking. Pre social networking, you would only see your friends pics if they chose to show them to you.

    Likewise having access to a list of your friends' friends is very odd - it is much better to discover this naturally, by being invited to dinner, parties etc.

    I pretty much have rejected all these social networking sites, as I don't believe its adding anything to social networking. I think it is hindering our social development - as there is less face to face contact if we are stuck in front of our computers and are obsessed by our online profiles - at the expense of our real lives.

  • Comment number 38.

    My 12 year old grand-daughter is an avid user of Facebook. She has been guided over appropriate use regarding her personal safety. She is now in receipt of unpleasant messages ( apparently from an adult male) on her mobile despite never having made it available on Facebook. The SIM card is going to be changed ASAP, should the police be informed? HELP.

  • Comment number 39.

    #38 - In my opinion, yes, the police should be informed.

  • Comment number 40.

    Facebook cannot be touched for know. I have seen the "competition" and i am not impressed. I describe them as niche products that will only attract a small following. Diaspora is the most familiar name out of the list - they promised a lot and (as is the case) have failed to deliver. Facebook is like a fine wine. It is in it's full maturity know and like everything in life, will reach its expiry date at some point in the future

  • Comment number 41.

    Facebook will continue to grow and dominate. Can anyone think of another search engine coming along to challenge Google. Like Google, Facebook is flawed but it's the numbers game that they have both won.
    Remember, in a free market economy, users never get the best product, they get the product that works for the best interest of business.
    Lastly, people are sheep - hence 'there can be only one'!

  • Comment number 42.

    I'm simply amazed by the privacy argument... 99.9% of the population are complete bores and yet people believe that they have something to hide! Social media is pretty sad and so are most of the people that use it. Facebook is like a nudist beach... The boys are only interested in the girls and the girls are only interested in themselves. How many Facebook friends does it take to make one real friend?

  • Comment number 43.

    For myself, an ardent hobbyist, with interests in Hi-Fi, Motorcycling and R/C model planes, I find the idea of smaller focus forums much more appealing and have a much safer feeling rather than exposing your whole life to the world and his wife!

  • Comment number 44.

    Facebook took Farmville and applied it to their users. We are cows, held captive by our own hunger for FB-controlled channels of communication with our friends, and milked for all we're worth.

    If everyone switched to Diaspora, they'd eventually treat us just as badly as Facebook.

    The only hope is switching to a social network which has an open protocol and thereby cannot compel you to stay by providing the only easy access to your existing friends and groups.

    Appleseed is that network.

  • Comment number 45.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 46.

    to Ted, 42: Well said.
    People are flattering themselves with the mantra that some MiB is after their personal info.
    Gives them Meaning in LIff, I suppose.
    But, well, ass long as you have people walking around with their PIN codes written on their bankcards, what do you except...


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