A gripping article by Michael Wolff in MIT's Technology Review argues that Facebook faces a grim alternative future: either gain revenues in increasingly intrusive and ethically dubious ways—or go bust in the not very distant future:
Facebook currently derives 82 percent of its revenue from advertising. Most of that is the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people's Facebook profiles. Some is the kind of sponsorship that promises users further social relationships with companies: a kind of marketing that General Motors just announced it would no longer buy.
Facebook's answer to its critics is: pay no attention to the carping. Sure, grunt-like advertising produces the overwhelming portion of our $4 billion in revenues; and, yes, on a per-user basis, these revenues are in pretty constant decline, but this stuff is really not what we have in mind. Just wait.
It's quite a juxtaposition of realities. On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times' digital business. (Here's the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in theNew York Times' declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook's business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.
On the other hand, Facebook is, everyone has come to agree, profoundly different from the Web. First of all, it exerts a new level of hegemonic control over users' experiences. And it has its vast scale: 900 million, soon a billion, eventually two billion (one of the problems with the logic of constant growth at this scale and speed, of course, is that eventually it runs out of humans with computers or smart phones). And then it is social. Facebook has, in some yet-to-be-defined way, redefined something. Relationships? Media? Communications? Communities? Something big, anyway. …
What might Facebook's big idea look like? Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see "You Are the Ad," by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).
If you're inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. "If we just ... if only ... when we will ..." goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you ... If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer's message ... get it? No ads, just friends! My God!