Why Facebook Can’t Compete

It is rare to hear that phrase in Silicon Valley these days. What is it that Facebook cannot do? Not much.

When Facebook launched Instagram stories a few months before Snapchat’s IPO, many critics believed Snapchat’s meteoric growth was over. Instagram stories was Facebook’s 2nd attempt (the first being Poke, which was an utter disaster) to glean users away from Snapchat. How would Snapchat compete now, everyone wondered?

For me, the answer was easy. Facebook would not be able to compete on products that fundamentally disregard the ethos that Facebook is built on — a more open, and connected world (read: the proliferation of content existing on your social mantlepiece forever.) Key words here are “proliferation” and “forever.”

Facebook’s entire advertising thesis is built on having the best repository of data on each of its users. This data is a combination of all the content we have chosen to share with Facebook over time — what we like, where we went on Tuesday, and the 34 albums we shared over the years. Facebook needs to continue to incentivize its users to keep on producing content to keep our online data fields fresh. That’s where all their dough comes from. So, like I said before, proliferation is key.

Forever, is the second important moat. Half the reason I am still on Facebook is because it is nostalgic. I joined Facebook in my last year of high school and it has kept my memories of a decade or so online. These are memories I hold dear and I’d have to wade through thousands of pictures in my hard drive to relive some of those memories. Snapchat just doesn’t have that access to my nostalgia.

When Instagram skyrocketed to fame, Facebook got the signal that proliferation was not resonating with everyone anymore. The thoughtfulness of an Instagram post was the “signal in the noise” that users craved. In its best move to date, Facebook acquired Instagram — and the rest is history. Instagram became Facebook’s hottest property and the social real estate of the future. But there was a key problem — the ethos of both companies could not be more different. Proliferation of unthoughtful content was the antithesis of Instagram and the social laws of Instagram dis-incentivized most young millennials to post more than once a day. (Ask a young teenager how much of a faux pas it is to post several times a day!) These social laws kept Instagram fresh and still beloved by its users, despite Facebook’s ownership.

But ultimately, the Facebook culture would reign. In the last few months, Instagram has launched product features that are antithetical to its ethos. You can now post several pictures in one Instagram square AND post live stories — a complete Snapchat ripoff. The once hipster real estate feels like its being auctioned off to “the man.” Cue the social noise, and ugly ads.

Facebook is back-tracking on its once brilliant move — to let Instagram be Instagram. Now, Instagram looks like a disruptive construction site. A filtered sunset picture, a stream of five birthday party shots, and a live video of a blogger walking to get coffee. There’s too much going on. Luckily, Snapchat has the best seat in the house to watch this unfold. They will continue to do what they’ve always done — build a platform that goes against Facebook’s grain.

Snapchat has built a platform that caters to the new millennial. The millennial that doesn’t care about forever, or album making. The millennial that produces so much content that a “decade ago” means nothing. To these millennials, Snapchat is the platform that stayed true to itself, the new conversation stream for close family and friends — unfiltered, raw, and fresh (dog ear filters and all.)

Facebook just can’t compete on this front (this being: unfiltered, easily created content that won’t last forever) without dismantling and separating the brand it spend 10+ years building.

Are you building a product that goes against Facebook’s ethos? We want to hear all about it! Pitch me on Twitter Anna Khan

Note: The original version of this post is on my website: www.annakhan.com

GP @CRV, Alum @HarvardHBS @Stanford. I like a bagel with attitude.