Facebook isn't dying, but it needs to evolve to survive

Facebook must do more than invade our privacy, bombard us with ads, and make us feel sad. To stay relevant, it must address users' privacy concerns, adjust its ad strategy, and engage users in developing and emerging markets.

Facebook/AP
Facebook's 'Nearby Friends' tool uses a smartphone’s GPS system to tell Facebook friends when they are nearby to each other (providing they have the feature turned on).

Researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler from Princeton University made headlines earlier this year when they predicted that Mark Zuckerberg's almighty Facebook would shed 80 percent of its users by 2017. (Facebook offered a blistering comeback.)

Still, the study followed reports that more than 11 million young people have left the social media giant since 2011. Apparently parents have spoiled the fun, making the social network "uncool." Contributing factors to the notion that users are abandoning the site are most certainly people's concerns over privacy and advertising.

As the Internet progresses from a Web 2.0, driven by communication between its users, to a Web 3.0, which will be driven by cooperation with the system itself, we are increasingly forgoing the control we once had over our machines and our online selves.

Tailored ads and privacy

We are told by experts such as artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil that the more we use systems like Facebook, the more these systems will learn about us, thereby enhancing our own personal online experiences.

Such automation means that we are starting to see advertising directed in a more sophisticated way, taking into account what we already "like" when we're online. For instance, the more you "like" engagement announcements and wedding photos, the more ads you'll see telling you where to buy wedding dresses online.

For some, this is a good thing. If we are going to be bombarded by advertising, why not make it advertising that is in line with our interests? For others, it feels like an invasion of privacy and they cannot shake the feeling that their every move is being watched.

This feeling has only increased during the disclosures of US National Security Agency surveillance programs. In a recent update, Facebook even announced its new right to read multimedia messaging service messages on its users' mobile devices.

What began as an innovative way to connect with friends, family, and colleagues now seems to be flying too close to the sun.

Facebook makes us sad

Beyond advertising and privacy concerns is what Facebook is doing to our everyday behavior and demeanor. The University of Michigan recently found through a study that "the more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time."

Put simply, Facebook is making us sad. It all sounds rather dire. Why would we continue using a platform that seems to only use us for ad revenue and in return gives us the gift of depression?

Future survival

One argument in favor of Facebook's survival is that, while the Western world is starting to opt out, more and more users are emerging in Asia and Africa as access to technology grows in these regions.

Earlier this year, Bill Gates pointed to the benefits of the digital revolution in areas currently affected by poverty, saying that such developments will help countries "learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations."

Such regions will develop quickly, partly as a result of the adoption of information and communication technologies such as Facebook, and this is a major area in which Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues could do some good.

In fact, Facebook has now teamed up with mobile phone manufacturers and nonprofits to create Internet.org – whose goal is to bring the Internet "to the two thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it." Last month, Facebook announced that it will deliver access to the Web via flying drones, thereby putting their aspirations into action.

It seems, then, that Facebook might not be going away anytime soon. While its saturation of the Western world might be dropping, its presence is expanding in the East.

As we head toward Web 3.0, however, Facebook must engage with the best characteristics of new technology.

It must find a way to use automation to the advantage of us all. It must overcome the challenge of making us feel comfortable with a lack of privacy. It must be there when we need it, but stay out of our lives the rest of the time, thereby making us feel better about our own lives.

It must invest in the well-being and future of citizens in developing nations. It must not force-feed us advertisements. It must act as both a safe and fun environment for parents and children alike. It must evolve with developments in technology, while also meeting the wants and needs of its users.

Only then will it ensure its own future.

Patrick Kelly teaches filmmaking, animation, interactive media, and new media at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter at @patcheskelly. An earlier version of this piece first appeared at TheConversation.com.

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