Can Facebook Maintain High Ground?

 First published March 13, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

SnapchatPicAs I said in my last column, Facebook’s recent acquisition spree seems to indicate that they’re trying to evolve from being our Social Landmark to being a virtual map that guides us through our social activity. But, as Facebook rolls out new features or acquires one-time competitors in order to complete this map of the social landscape, will we use it?  Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel apparently doesn’t think so. That’s part of the reason he turned down $3 billion from Facebook.

At the end of 2012, Mark Zuckerberg paid Spiegel and his team a visit. The purpose of the visit was to scare the bejeezus out of Snapchat by threatening to crush them with the roll out of Poke.  Of course, we now know that Poke was a monumental flop while Snapchat rolled along quite nicely, thank you.  Several months later, Zuck flew out to meet with the Snapchat team again, taking a decidedly different tone this time. He also brought along a very big checkbook.  Snapchat said thanks, but no thanks.

So, how can a brash start up like Snapchat beat the 800 lb Gorilla in it’s own back yard? Why was Poke DOA? Was it a one-of-a-kind miscue on the part of Facebook – or part of a trend?

Part of the answer may lie in how we feel about novelty vs familiarity in the things we deal with. As I said in the last column, we go through 3 stages when we explore new landscapes. We move from navigating by landmarks to memorizing routes and finally, we create our own mental maps of the space, allowing us to plot our own routes as needed. It we apply this to navigating a virtual space like the online social sphere, we should move from relying on landmarks (like Facebook) to using routes (single purpose apps like Snapchat) and finally, to creating our own map that allows us to switch back and forth between apps as required.  Facebook wants to jump from the first stage to the last in order to remain dominant in the social market maintaining our map for us by becoming a hub for all required social functionality. But if the Poke story is any indication, we may not be willing to go along for the ride.

But there’s a subtle psychological point to how we learn to navigate new landscapes – we gain mastery over our environment. With this increased confidence comes a reluctance to feel we’re moving backward. We tend to discard the familiar and embrace novelty as we gain confidence. This squares with research done in the familiarity and novelty seeking in humans. We look for familiarity in things that have high degrees of risk, in the faces of others around us or when we’re operating on autopilot. But when we’re actively considering and judging options and looking for new opportunities, we are drawn to new things.

Humans are natural foragers. We have built in rules of conduct when we go out seeking things that will improve our lot, whether it be food, shelter or tools. Ideally, we look for things that will offer us a distinct advantage over the status quo with a reasonable investment of effort. We balance the two – advantage against effort. If the new options come from a overly familiar place, we tend to mentally discount the potential advantage because we no longer feel we’re moving forward. Over time, this builds into a general feeling of malaise towards the overly familiar.

Time will tell if Evan Spiegel was prescient or just plain stupid in turning down Facebook’s offer. The question is not so much will Facebook prevail, but rather will Snapchat end up emerging as a key part of the social landscape on a continuing basis? That particular landscape is notoriously unstable and it’s been known to swallow up many, many other companies with nary a burp.  Perhaps Spiegel should have taken the money and ran.

But then I wouldn’t be betting the farm on Facebook’s chances of permanence either.

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