illustration_of_facebook_iconIt’s hard to dethrone the king. It’s not because the king is necessarily best, or even the most beloved. Sometimes the king was just the first on the scene, or maybe circumstances just fell that way.

Facebook is the current king of social networking and despite some faltering steps doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. It has many lessons to learn from its predecessor, MySpace. But so do its competitors.

A Noble Background

Facebook won’t last forever. MySpace certainly didn’t. But Facebook was designed to be a king of social networking. As was MySpace. And so will whatever comes next. All social networks are designed to be kings, provided they ever get the opportunity to rise to the top.

Other social networks took the more clever approach by filling a different niche, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest. But what about those that are trying to battle Facebook on its own turf? There’s Google+, Ning, Path, and countless others that the mainstream public haven’t even heard of.

What set Facebook apart from the others? Really, just circumstance and precedence. You see every social network, by virtue of its design, is meant to secure its own dominance. Just whichever has the most dominance, wins.

Built to Win

The heart of the matter is this: all social networks are designed to be mutually exclusive; or in other words to be used at the expense of others. By using one social network, you shun the others; unless they occupy different spheres of influence, of course. Using Facebook and Twitter? No problem. But Facebook and Google+? Now there’s some awkwardness.

The question is why?

There is no question that some people don’t like Facebook, and would even go so far as to stop using it altogether. But they like the networking afforded to them by a social network. So for them, the quest becomes to find another social network that has the features and policies they like. Nowadays there are some alternatives, chief among them being Google+.

But there’s just one little problem, or rather potentially hundreds of them. Friends.

Why do you chiefly use a social network? To stay in touch and communicate with friends and contacts. So not having all those friends and contacts would essentially defeat the purpose of a social network, wouldn’t it? And therein lies the problem.

Even if you decide to hop ship and use another social network, the exercise becomes moot once you discover that none of your friends have too. Though you’ve left behind the frustrations of the mainstream social network for the liberties of another one, trying to convince your fellows to follow suit is usually no easy task. Why? Typically it’s because they don’t want to leave their own friends behind.

The price of leaving behind the king, or of being an early-adopter of a new social network, is loneliness and frustration. And inexorably, the king draws you back in to his kingdom, and remains the largest in the land.

To Dethrone A King

But we do have one glaring instance where a king was dethroned. MySpace was the first massively popular social network. It had secured its audience first, and therefore should have been able to keep it. Again, why leave to another social network since everyone you knew was already on MySpace?

And yet, people left. And Facebook took over. So again, the question is why?

The former king fell victim to poor business decisions, technical inflexibility, and bad press. A perfect storm of bad luck combined with the worst crippling blow of all, a worthy competitor watching from the sidelines. The users on MySpace were becoming increasingly frustrated with the website, and the allure of a cleaner, more feature-packed, more focused alternative was definitely appealing.

People started to migrate over to Facebook. But what sealed MySpace’s fate was the fact that people’s friends migrated as well. Individuals weren’t just leaving, entire social circles were. Soon enough, staying on MySpace became its own liability as the majority of a person’s friends were now found on Facebook, leaving the MySpace loyalists the deprived and isolated ones.

Repeating History?

So can history ever repeat itself? Certainly. All it would take is another perfect storm to dethrone Facebook: technical inflexibility due to business demands, increasingly cluttered and unfriendly user interface, bad press to scare away new potential users, and a worthy competitor as an appealing alternative. This concoction isn’t as rare as it would seem.

With Facebook now publicly owned its direction is dictated by its shareholders, not by what is technically sound or appealing. Its interface is constantly undergoing redesigns, and while many complain but eventually adjust to it, more intrusive ads and privacy worries easily mirror what happened on MySpace. Bad press can come from any direction, from any source; all it takes is a big enough scandal.

And as for worthy competitors? There are several. Right now they seem insignificant because there’s little reason for the masses to migrate from Facebook. But if Facebook’s ship begins to sufficiently list to one side, like MySpace once did, then the users will flee.

Once the mainstream user base wants to abandon Facebook, they’ll follow the trails blazed by the early-adopters who first explored other competing social networks. Once people find something they like, the word will spread and everyone will converge on that one social channel, thus making it the new king.

Long Live The King

Now that social networking exists as an mainstay of the Web, it isn’t going away anytime soon. Possibly never. The cat’s out of the bag; Pandora’s Box has been opened. Now that people have experienced social networking, they must always have it.

Consequently, this means there will always be demand for it. And by its own nature, whomever happens to be most dominant in filling that demand will be king, to the detriment of all others. But should that king falter, everyone will just flock to another, and then make that one the new dominant kingdom.

There can only be one king. But there must always be a king.

Do you think Facebook will ever lose the crown, and if so, how? Who do you think is likely to replace them, an existing competitor, or something we have yet to see? Let us know in the comments.

By Vince Ginsburg (c) 2013