Why Your Favorite Social Network Will Probably Die
Friday, December 27, 2013 - 1:30pm
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Remember Friendster? No, of course you don’t.

Long ago, in the days before kids were Instagramming their Vines and Snapchatting their Tweets, before they were avoiding their parents on Facebook or harassing each other on Myspace, they were all drawn to one social network that stood above the pretenders like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In its heyday, Friendster boasted over 100 million subscribers and was the proud owner of several patents that were fundamental to social networking as we know it today. It was at the top of the world – so much so that, in its hubris, it turned down a $30 million buyout deal from Google. But all great empires come to an end, and this one was no exception. By 2009 it was being mocked by the Onion, and by 2011 the site had been scrapped and sold for parts, repurposed into a social gaming platform.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

But why? What reduced a seemingly unstoppable jet of overly extroverted hypersocial blabbermouths into an embarrassing trickle? (Don’t worry, lots of other social networks have that problem.)

A gentleman named David Garcia and his boffin friends at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich claim to have the answer, as reported by Technology Review earlier in the year.

Using information gleaned from the network’s user data before it went kaput, they’ve determined that when the cost to the user – in terms of effort or time required – outweighs the benefits of the network in question, well, that’s when people start running for the hills. In Friendster’s case, it was a 2009 redesign and series of tech issues that forced people to run like spurned lovers into the arms of Myspace and the other “F” network – Facebook.

But, Garcia says, there is a built-in buffer in this model, in the form of how many friends the average user has in their network. The more friends per user, the less likely the whole thing is to collapse in on itself. This would explain why Facebook has remained somewhat solvent despite reinventing itself time and time again, and why Digg folded quickly once people noticed that everyone was running towards Reddit, which had just appeared on the horizon, flexing its muscles like Fabio on the cover of a cheap romance novel.

Technology Review’s article, in its conclusion, actually extends a warning to Facebook, one I agree with. Facebook has a habit of changing its image more often than a socially unsure middle schooler, each time earning more vitriol from its users. If they keep it up, it's only a matter of time before everyone abandons ship and signs up somewhere more appealing. Maybe Google Plus.

Hah. As if.  

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Raised in South Africa, Andrew Lumby is The Fiscal Times' Technical Producer. He also writes about gaming, entertainment and technology.