Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facebook, Twitter and newspapers

A revised version of this post was published in the Post Register May 23, 2010.

Facebook now claims more than 400 million active users who spend a combined 950 years (nearly a millennium) on the site every month.

This is an average of 21 hours per month per user, or about 3 percent of the time available (the average month consists of 1,217 hours). More astonishing, a good share of Facebook “users” rarely go onto the site, which means that some hard-core users spend weeks at a time Facebooking.

And yet, Facebook has a problem: How to make money? It is attempting to mine deeply the personal information volunteered by its users, which is creating a growing concern among Facebookers over privacy, but that effort isn’t yet turning into dollars.

The big problem for Faceook and many other web sites is that precious few of their users ever bother to look at the advertising. So, Facebook faces the same problem that derailed MySpace and other social networks and free-access web sites -- where will the money come from? Traffic – even enormous, global, frequent traffic – doesn’t magically generate money.

These are astonishing numbers, but there is much left unsaid. For example, what percentage of "users" make up the majority of the time spent on the site? Using Facebook's own numbers, the "average user" is on Facebook three hours a month. I know people who do that every day. The implication is that many users are rarely on the site.

What percentage is active in the sense that they log on, but then become "lurkers" who just observe without really participating? My experience may not be "normal," but of my 112 carefully selected "friends" on Facebook, more than half never post anything. But, are they "active," in Facebook's definition?

Another question left unanswered is what percentage of Facebook users ever look at the advertising on the pages? My guess is: Basically zero. Facebook faces the same crossroad that derailed MySpace and other social networks -- where will the money come from?

There would seem to be a simple enough answer -- just charge users a modest subscription fee. Of course, when Facebook floats this trial balloon, users become apoplectic: "NOOOO! This must be free, and we shall both leave the network and riot in the streets if required to pay even a dime for this service over which we have become deeply obsessed!" This, of course, is Facebook's own fault, having taught its users that this service really ought to be free. It's, well, it's just crazy.

Twitter's issues run deeper still. While Facebook might be able to find 100 million people to pay a dollar per month for some sort of premium version of the network, no one will ever pay a penny for Twitter, which means its days are likely numbered, despite enormous user numbers.

What does any of this have to do with newspapers? Mostly, Facebook and Twitter have become useful promotional tools for more traditional media. Since launching a Facebook page a few months ago, the Post Register now has 600 Facebook "friends" (just click on the "Like" button on the Facebook link on the Post Register's home page and you, too, can be our friend!). When we add the daily post to our Facebook page highlighting the next day's print edition, it's set up to automatically send out a Twitter post, too.

Social networks also are helpful from time to time in making us aware of a potential story or fleshing out one that we're already working on. Beyond that, Facebook is a bit of a toy, and Twitter is a cheap toy, destined to play a minor role in the evolution of real journalism.

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