What if Facebook Disappeared?
Imagine this doomsday scenario: Like a technological version of The Leftovers, Facebook suddenly disappears and takes critical advocacy infrastructure with it. How would nonprofits, associations, and the various other organizations recover this (nearly) free capacity to communicate with members and interested parties?
(Or, how would any of us go on without an endless supply of cute dog and baby pictures?)
As Colin Delany writes, it’s a question that rose out of a session during the recent Nonprofit 2.0 conference here in Washington. Sure, the ur-social network is only ten years old and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But, Delany writes, “the question’s a good way to estimate how vulnerable you are to future changes along the lines of the recent algorithm evolution that’s crippled the reach of most pages unless they pay to ‘boost’ their content.” Most business would go on as usual for advocacy groups. “But some advocacy campaigns aren’t really much more than a Facebook page, making them highly vulnerable to the company’s future attempts to please shareholders with higher revenue,” he notes.
Delany’s solution to Facebook essentially disappearing itself through higher fees is diversifying communications channels and moving supporters to email lists. “In some sense, Facebook’s steady extension of the pay-to-play model is analogous to a natural disasters,” he writes. “You can’t completely avoid either, but you CAN act preemptively to mitigate the worst of the damage.”
I threw the question of what would happen without Facebook (or Twitter, or Pinterest…) out to our editorial board:
While we’d all cheer and cry at the same time, the key lesson is that you should never put all your eggs into one social media basket. These are Other Peoples Property. And while I am down with OPP, I always hedge my bets.
You have to build channels on socnets where your audiences live in order to be effective at outreach. That said, your audience is probably on at least 2 or 3 of the big socnets (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+), so you should be there. If Facebook goes away, then you have the others still available.
Also, the general strategy for outreach on all of these socnets is essentially the same (keep your message visible, correct opposition message and recruit supporters). While the tactics vary from socnet to socnet, if one goes away and another rises up, you should be able to make the transition (even if you have to rebuild your audience).
Fortunately, if you had an engaged audience on Facebook and it went away, a lot of those people will come looking for you on other networks. That helps, as long as you are ready to be found there.
There are two possibilities…
POSSIBILITY 1: For the moment, let’s forget the conspiracy theorists speculating about how and why a multi-billion-dollar public company suddenly disappeared from the face of earth.
Consider what would happen if all cars disappeared. After a bit of grumbling, chances are we’d see a lot more people riding bicycles or scooters to work. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the Internet. Take away Facebook or Twitter and suddenly you’ve got everybody looking at SnapChat, Instagram, Secret, WhatsApp, and other budding social networks in a whole new light.
Facebook and Twitter pioneered social media as we define it today — even if they did it on the backs of others (remember MySpace?). As digital strategists, no doubt we benefit from being able to communicate to millions of users on these massive networks. But the real value of Facebook and Twitter is the ability to reach so many individuals within narrowly targeted segments. That sophisticated targeting is made possible by the vast sums of personal information we have all willingly shared with Facebook and Twitter over years of use.
New social media platforms are gaining popularity in part as an alternative to the all-knowing and all-seeing Facebook and Twitter. Their success is being driven by an underpinning of anonymity — knowing less about users, protecting user privacy, or deleting user information rather than owning it forever.
Thus, if Facebook or Twitter were to disappear, not even their creators could replace it with a carbon copy. User attitudes and expectations have changed. Instead, they would be replaced by a multitude of platforms as diverse as their users. And that would represent the biggest challenge for digital strategists: determining which platform not only has enough users, but has the “right” users for a particular campaign as well.
POSSIBILITY 2: The world as we know it would cease to exist.