Imagine for a moment that no one ever joins Facebook again. Whether this year or five years from now, it has to occur: You can’t grow beyond the number of Internet users on Earth. Past that point, what happens? What’s to keep a rival like Google Plus, or an as-yet-unhatched idea residing in the brain of a Stanford undergrad, from eating Facebook’s big social lunch?
To answer, slice the company into two pieces: The first part is the interface, that familiar blue-and-white screen with walls and timelines and status updates. The second, far more important part is the network—the interconnected computers that run Facebook. The interface is an extremely useful tool in that it encourages people to feed more information about themselves into the network, where it can be parsed. It is there, in half-lit data centers, where Facebook has plenty of growth potential left.
Allow a nerdy digression. There’s a technology called OAuth. When you go to Spotify, or comment on many big websites, or rate a movie on Netflix, you are usually given the option to connect with your Facebook I.D. This works well because people hate maintaining separate user names and passwords; our brains just can’t deal. The catch is that now you’re logged into Facebook’s network, and will probably stay that way, even if you never again go to facebook.com.
Any company can provide an OAuth service. It’s just that Facebook has the most users. And now Facebook knows how many of them are logging in to any site that uses an updated version of OAuth. (I mean, I have no inside track on how they use the data, but how could you not look?) Facebook also has a CEO concerned about rivals usurping it. If you had a huge pile of data about websites and services that might pose a competitive threat and billions of dollars in cash at hand, what would you do? Right: You’d buy Instagram. And you’d be able to make a very informed decision without consulting anyone, because, well, math.
So what’s happening is that Facebook has an extraordinary window into the activities of other up-and-coming social networks and other competitors. (The same is true for Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Foursquare; it’s just that Facebook has a much bigger window.) With its remarkable war chest, it can endeavor to buy even more of our time and data than it owns today.
Which brings us back to the question: Have we reached peak Facebook? And no, we haven’t. Even if Facebook never adds another user, it will keep growing: It has become a fundamental substrate, a difficult-to-avoid component of any site or app that requires users to register—making it essential to nearly every major web innovation now and in the future.
There’s a related question: Is Facebook ever going to be cool again? That’s like asking “Is the phone company cool?” The interface may not be exciting anymore, but the network is very, very cool, in the disruptively awesome way that enormous things are: volcanoes, aircraft carriers, the New Deal.
Peak Facebook, when it does arrive, is something that Facebook-haters should fear, not welcome. Facebook’s platform has been so overwhelmingly successful that the company hardly had time to do anything but grow. Yet when the growth of the network itself slows, as it too inevitably will, Facebook—as a publicly traded leviathan whose mandate is to increase profits—will need to find new ways of slicing and dicing humanity into groups that will respond to marketing. That’s what lurks on the other side of peak Facebook, and it is going to suck.