At 30, Mark Zuckerberg may feel he’s getting old.
He’s still one of the world’s youngest billionaires, and his company, Facebook, holds the undisputed title of the world’s largest social networking site.
But Facebook is losing its “cool” image among youngsters. According to the latest US App Store rankings, its smartphone applications, including Instagram, Facebook Messenger and the Facebook flagship app, are falling behind new challengers such as Snapchat.
Many young people avoid the site because their parents and elders are there as “friends”, not just snooping on their status updates but also making all sorts of embarrassing comments.
Determined to arrest this worrying trend, Facebook is transforming itself into a mobile internet-based company and enriching its product offerings to reduce its reliance on the flagship website. In 2012 it snapped up photo-sharing service Instagram for US$1 billion. In February this year, it acquired mobile messaging app Whatapp for US$19 billion in cash and stock, a stunning amount even by the high-flying technology sector’s standards.
It also reportedly tried to buy photo messaging app Snapchat for US$3 billion, but the offer was said to have been turned down by the startup’s founders. As its key feature, Snapchat lets users send photos that are automatically erased seconds after they are sent. The app is very popular among US kids with more than 350 million images sent daily between users.
Now Facebook has come up with a self-developed product that offers a similar feature. The app, known internally as Slingshot, allows users to send photos and short videos that can only be viewed once by their friends by tapping on their profile pictures; the images self-destruct and no records can be retrieved from the users’ servers.
What’s becoming obvious in the emergence of these apps is that young people value their privacy highly. As much as they love doing “selfies”, they don’t want those pictures to last and be kept in servers or floating around in the internet. They don’t want their daily lives to be permanently documented. And that’s the difference between Facebook and Snapchat.
Facebook for them is an old style of networking. It’s almost like LinkedIn, which is a social network for job seekers.
When Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary on Feb. 4, it offered its more than one billion active users a kind of photo album that gives an encapsulated history of their status updates from the day they joined the social networking site. Such a review of a user’s timeline and life events could be a welcome gift for those aged 30 and above, but not for youngsters.
Facebook continues to prowl the field for merger and acquisition opportunities as it wants to remain in close interaction with its young users. So far Instagram provides high exposure in the picture-sharing space, Whatsapp is a solid investment in real-time mobile communications, while Slingshot could be another tool to lure the youngster market. Taken together, these three apps could be Facebook’s growth engines in the near future.
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