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Perhaps the one defining feature of Facebook over the past 12 months has been its unbelievable ability to co-opt other fast-growing social networks. It has done so either directly – by integrating new features such as live video into Facebook itself – or indirectly, by adding features and functionality to Instagram and WhatsApp. If you view Facebook as a total ecosystem – as a combination of all the social networks owned by Facebook – then it’s clear that any rival has its work cut out for it.
Just creating better features is not a winning strategy for Facebook rivals
If it were as easy as simply “building a better mousetrap,” surely someone would have done it by now. You could argue that Instagram was superior to Facebook because it was a visual, mobile-first social platform. So Facebook bought it. You could argue that WhatsApp was a new way of 1-to-1 social connectivity, so Facebook bought it and created Facebook Messenger. And you could argue that Snapchat – which appealed during to Millennials and introduced all kinds of features, such as Stories and disappearing content – was in many ways superior, but it was simply co-opted by Facebook.
What Facebook has going for it that no other social network has is the so-called “Network Effect.” In other words, the more of your friends who use Facebook, the more powerful it becomes for you. And the harder it becomes to quit. If, for example, you decide to publicly quit Facebook, then you will need to convince all of your closest friends to quit Facebook, otherwise simply migrating to another, “cooler” social network is worthless. That’s because that other social network will feel like a ghost town – just ask Google about its social network, Google+. (Ouch!)
Ideas for a Facebook alternative
But that’s not to say that others can’t compete with Facebook’s growth. It’s just important to keep the size and extent of that growth hidden from Facebook, otherwise it will start poking around, looking for things it can “borrow” for the Facebook experience.
For example, just as Instagram pioneered the idea of a social network based around photo sharing, there was once the opportunity to pioneer a new kind of social network that was “video-first.” Someone like Netflix, Hulu or YouTube could have had success there. But those days are now over, as Facebook is moving aggressively into video, even going so far as to move into original content creation, just like a Netflix or HBO.
The same thing is true about virtual reality. At one time, a big tech company could have dominated the VR space and added in enough social elements based around gaming to make it a fun, VR-based social network. But Facebook got that idea before anyone else did, and wound up buying Oculus for $2 billion. So Facebook has the VR space covered as well.
The one big area where Facebook might not be able to compete
One area that’s perhaps ripe for future development is a social network based around the Internet of Things. You could argue that’s what Amazon has in mind now, with its aggressive move into the Internet of Things via the Amazon Echo. This social network would not just connect you and your fellow human friends, it would connect you, your friends and a few bots and AI-powered smart objects. (Hello, Alexa! How was your day?)
So it’s clear that rivals can’t possibly compete with Facebook by offering better features or better user experience. What needs to happen is for a company to change the game so that Facebook can’t possibly compete on that new playing field. And only a few companies – Apple, Google and Amazon – have the size and financial resources to do so. But none of them have social media so deeply infused into their DNA as Facebook does.