A Facebook Experiment

I deleted Facebook off of my iPhone six months ago. I had one simple reason in mind: I thought I would be able to analyze Facebook more accurately and completely by not using it or its companion apps, cold turkey. Purchasing an iPhone 6s Plus at launch gave me the perfect opportunity to begin my experiment. My initial assumption proved true. In just the first eight weeks, I learned more about Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, than the last eight years. I've reached a number of observations over the past six months on Facebook's value and vulnerabilities and a definite answer to what was once a seemingly difficult question: Are Facebook and Apple becoming competitors? 

Observations

I had five overarching observations from not using Facebook properties for the past six months: 

1) Facebook is a habit, not an addiction. Within a few hours of not using Facebook, it was easy to see how much time I had been dedicating to Facebook. I began grabbing my iPhone but not knowing what exactly to do with it. Typically, I would open the Facebook app and waste a "commercial" amount of time - a minute or two of taking in random content from friends. Instead of downloading a few iOS games to keep my attention, Facebook had become my go-to game. If I was at a doctor's office waiting to be seen, Facebook would serve as that perfect attention filler. I now needed to find something else to occupy my time.

During the first few weeks of my Facebook experiment, I did have an urge to find my old iPhone 5s (which still had the Facebook app installed on it) and take a quick peek at my News Feed. However, this desire never got to the point of interrupting my daily routine, a prerequisite for a form of addiction. Instead, I realized Facebook had become a habit. As time went on, the solution to handling my Facebook habit was simply to find other apps that would fill my time. Those apps turned out to be Apple News and Twitter (and eventually Slack). Each one of those apps would offer different forms of content capable of grabbing my attention. 

2) Facebook is no longer a social network. Facebook stopped being a social network years ago. Up until this past September, I had used Facebook daily for more than 10 years. I was among one of the early Facebook users relying on the site to literally see who lived next door. As the years went by, my Facebook wall became a News Feed and with the change, Facebook changed from being about what my friends and I were doing to what my friends thought was interesting around the web. I discovered that those two things produce very different kinds of content. Facebook lost all resemblance of a social network with the presence of brands, ads and algorithms. 

3) My core communication was never on Facebook. After I stopped using Facebook Messenger, I wasn't sure if my communication with family and friends would deteriorate. Instead, I discovered that my most important communication channels were never on Facebook properties to begin with. I still used the phone app on my iPhone for most communication while iMessage also continued to play a significant role. For other forms of communication that were indeed found with Facebook, I reverted back to relying on word of mouth. The events and occasions that I needed to know I ended up finding out about, just through a third-person. The type of communication that did suffer by not using Facebook was the email variety, or messages to acquaintances with little real-world connection.  

4) I'm less informed of the local world around me. There is no denying that I am less aware of what is going on around me in terms of random daily news and events by removing myself from Facebook. I am still keenly aware of global news thanks to Twitter and apps like Apple News. In fact, I've had more time to follow those kinds of news stories since deleting Facebook. However, I have lost touch with much of the local news likely to impact my daily routine. Facebook had turned into my local paper, all the way down to nearby high school sports scores and recaps. Instead of reporters relaying the information, parents would upload pictures and stories of how their children did at the game. Not having access to that type of news makes me feel a bit more disconnected to the community around me since there is no other app or source capable of recreating that news medium other than a traditional paper or news periodical sent through the postal mail (which is still the only way I know the bare essentials of what is happening around me). 

5) Facebook's success is dependent on my time. I used to think that Facebook's success was dependent on me being an active participant by uploading content or sharing links. Instead, Facebook simply needs me to open a Facebook property for the company to remain relevant. With news organizations and other content sites now relying on Facebook for traffic, I turned from an active participant uploading content daily to a passive observer that paid Facebook with my time (and data). Facebook's transformation from a site that required me to spend time and energy to create a profile and engage with others to an app that fed me content from around the web without me needing to do much is why Facebook has become so quintessential to so many people.

Takeaways

After not using Facebook for six months, I was able to clearly see why Facebook is so incredibly popular around the world, the guiding motivation behind Mark Zuckerberg's actions, and where the company is headed tomorrow. 

What is Facebook? Facebook is a curated version of the web. Having 1.6 billion people participate in building this new version of the web is ultimately why Facebook had become a habit for me and so many other people using smartphones. There is literally a never-ending stream of information and content to consume. Talk about the advantages of having massive scale. Using the Safari or Chrome app on a smartphone to surf various websites is a pain, not to mention energy-consuming, which explains Facebook's aggressive moves in recent years to bring even more content into the News Feed. If Facebook wants to turn habits into addictions, they need to include the most sticky portions of the web including news, videos, and eventually live sports and make it remarkably easy to consume content. This explains the motivation behind Instant Articles and marketing the feature as accessing and reading news quickly and effortlessly. 

There is one very important takeaway from Facebook being a curated version of the web. Some people won't be interested in consuming this version of the web, and as I have shown by having not used Facebook for the past six months, there are other versions of the web available. Creating a non-Facebook version of the web involves more effort and dedication, but it is possible. I have found a handful of apps and websites (Apple News, iMessage, Twitter, Slack) that have contributed to a new curated version of the web. This helps explain why the 50% of the connected world that is not on Facebook can get by just fine without it and probably will not be embracing Facebook's version of the web anytime soon. If there is still any mystery as to why Facebook cares so much about connecting the rest of the world's seven billion people to the internet, look no further than those people representing Facebook's growth engine where additional users leads to a stronger version of the web and consequentially more advertisers.

The reason Instagram has become so incredibly popular is similar to how the News Feed offers a curated version of the web within the traditional Facebook app. Instagram is moving down the same path only with pictures. This opens so many more doors since photos and cameras have played an integral role in the smartphone boom. We now use our smartphones as tools to capture and interpret the world around us. Taking these photographs and then using the massive scale with hundreds of millions of users produces another version of the web that is even easier and more enjoyable to consume than compared to the traditional Facebook News Feed. 

Messaging Apps. Once the iOS versus Android war matured to a point where there were no longer the same fierce battles between the two platforms, many tech pundits and analysts turned to messaging as an answer for where consumer tech trends and interest were headed. For Facebook, both Messenger and WhatsApp were positioned as potential threats not only to iOS, but also to Android. Grandiose visions of everything and anything being put into Facebook Messenger and then crowding out competing platforms ended up being the subject of countless blog posts around the web. In reality, this messaging vision has been grossly exaggerated and like much of the tech analysis, void of reality. While 800 million people use Facebook Messenger and a billion people use WhatsApp, we rely on multiple communication channels throughout the day. The simple fact that many (most) young people are addicted to Snapchat shows that there is room for multiple messaging apps since we segment our communication channels according to our social network. And we haven't even discussed the Lines and WeChats of the world.  

When I stopped using Facebook, it became clear that iMessage, not Facebook, was the place I kept 100% of my family communication. This trend has only intensified in recent years as additional family members have purchased iPhones. While messaging will indeed continue to advance and be able to handle much more in the way of delivery content and utility, the industry is not a winner-take-all, but rather a handful of winners with the possibility of new start-ups coming in and also becoming a winner in terms of communication (hello Slack). 

Facebook vs. Apple. Facebook and Apple are unequivocally not competitors. In fact, Facebook and Apple are partners. Facebook's curated version of the web requires hardware, and Apple is a key player selling smartphones, tablets, and laptops/desktops. Instagram's growth has been fueled by smartphone camera innovation, which Apple has played a major role in. Add in Messenger and WhatsApp, and it's clear that Apple's 640 million iPhone users play a role in Facebook's success (and vice versa as many Apple consumers enjoy using Facebook properties on their iOS devices). 

However, it would be incorrect to assume the degree of competitiveness found within this Facebook and Apple relationship has remained static. Upon closer examination, Facebook and Apple are increasingly chasing similar goals. For both companies to remain relevant over time, they will need to occupy a greater share of our time and attention. Up to now, both companies are able to accomplish this goal without harming the other. A user reading an Instant Article in Facebook on his or her iPhone 6s Plus would be considered a win for both Facebook and Apple. However, listen to Mark Zuckerberg's vision for Facebook, and it's not difficult to see Facebook competing more directly with Apple. 

At first glance, Mark Zuckerberg's ideas on Facebook and virtual reality (VR) seem far-fetched, but when considering how Facebook is a curated version of the web, wanting to deliver immersive video content to users makes plenty of sense. According to Zuckerberg, instead of using our smartphone or tablet to open the Facebook/Instagram app and scrolling through a timeline of content, we can put on a pair of glasses/goggles to get a much more engaging and encompassing view of the world through VR. In essence, we would be able to see the world through other people's eyes. I still hold an incredible amount of hesitation and doubt that we will be willing to wear computers on our face throughout the day, but there is no denying that Facebook is betting big on a future beyond using Facebook on a smartphone.

The key development in Facebook's virtual reality bet has been its Oculus acquisition. With Oculus, Facebook entered the difficult world of hardware development, placing itself that much closer to taking on Apple as a more direct competitor. Of course, hardware is notoriously difficult, and I am skeptical Facebook's culture meshes well with prerequisites needed to succeed in hardware. While things are extremely early, a world where Facebook-branded VR glasses begin to take up users' time instead of iPhones or iPads would obviously mark a new type of competition. However, Apple isn't standing still and is not only investing in VR, but also showing interest in moving into entirely new categories such as personal transport and jewelry.  

While one of Apple's biggest competitors is itself (an iPhone's greatest competition is its year-old sibling), any company that is trying to build an experience out of the combination of software, hardware and services needs to be monitored. Facebook as of today does not meet the criteria for being classified as a formidable Apple competitor. However, a world in which Facebook continues to invest in hardware (much easier said than done) and begins to embrace ideals that go beyond software and hardware would certainly keep Apple executives up a few more nights.

Facebook Success

Mark Zuckerberg didn't position Facebook to replace the web. We don't use Facebook to search for something akin to a traditional Google search. Instead, Zuckerberg was interested in creating a new version of the web based on a different kind of search, one initially powered by our social fabric. For now, Wall Street and Silicon Valley seem to think both Facebook and Google can coexist peacefully despite what seems like obvious overlap in capabilities and ambition. Google's new corporate identity built around Alphabet certainly plays a role in showing that Google is looking for a future beyond search.

The primary takeaway from my Facebook experiment over the past six months is that while Facebook's popularity is unmatched on the web, the company is not invincible. Facebook's success will depend on its ability to deliver a compelling content consumption experience to its 1.6 billion users. As long as Facebook can occupy users' time, the company will do well with advertisers, helping to fund future endeavors. However, there continues to be a world outside of Facebook where billions of people live and enjoy technology with no regrets of not using a Facebook property. This world remains a vibrant place for both innovation and different ideas, leading to startups like Snapchat and Slack which begin to attract a growing amount of time and attention once given to Facebook. All the while, Apple's quest to embrace a new form of luxury will likely cap any potential near-term rivalry between Facebook and Apple. 

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