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When you’re as big as Facebook is — with over a billion users worldwide and a stock-market value of more than $150 billion — it would be tempting to just sit back and watch the money roll in. But co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is doing the exact opposite: he is busy thinking of ways to disrupt his own success, as a way of figuring out how Facebook can adapt to a mobile world full of fragmented social experiences like Instagram and Snapchat.
Zuckerberg talked to New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo about that and some other topics (including turning 30, a question he mostly ignored) during a recent interview. The piece is headlined “Can Facebook Innovate?” — which seems a little odd, given that Facebook has launched at least half a dozen new apps and services in the past year or two.
As I’ve argued before, Facebook is one of the few large companies that seems to have taken Steve Jobs’ approach to heart: namely, the need to disrupt yourself before others do so (as Apple did with the iPhone and iPad). It’s true that most of Facebook’s experiments have failed to set the world on fire, but that doesn’t make them not innovative. Innovation also means trying and failing.
The Great Unbundling of Facebook
One of the big themes that comes out of the interview is that Facebook is taking a completely different approach to mobile than it has on the desktop. You could call it “The Great Unbundling” — the process of taking discrete parts of the monolithic social network and breaking them down into individual apps, such as Instagram. As Zuckerberg put it:
“On desktop, where we grew up, the mode that made the most sense was to have a website, and to have different ways of sharing built as features within a website. So when we ported to mobile, that’s where we started — this one big blue app that approximated the desktop presence. But I think on mobile, people want different things… In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences. So what we’re doing with Creative Labs is basically unbundling the big blue app.”
Creative Labs is the group responsible for Paper, the Facebook news-reading app that barely even looks like it comes from Facebook at all, and one that — at least in my anecdotal surveys of friends and social connections — has overtaken use of the official Facebook app for some people. And Zuckerberg has hinted that more such apps will be coming, along with apps created by extracting bits of the official app, such as the Facebook Messenger app.
One thing that becomes clear during the Manjoo interview is that Zuckerberg sees many of these experiments as just that: experiments that could take years to show any meaningful results, if they ever do. And while he didn’t put it in so many words, Facebook also has the luxury of having a massive business to support those experiments, which gives the company a lot of runway.
“The other thing that is important context to keep in mind is that, to some extent, most of these new things that we’re doing aren’t going to move any needles in our business for a very long time. The main Facebook usage is so big. About 20 percent of the time people spend on their phone is on Facebook. From that perspective, Messenger or Paper can do extremely well but they won’t move any needles.”
Different levels of experimentation
Zuckerberg also outlines how he thinks of Facebook’s business in a structural sense, as a series of pieces in a kind of pyramid. First there’s the main app: “A billion people or more are using it, and it is a business.” Then there are things like Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Search: “They will probably be the next things that will become businesses at Facebook. But you want to fast-forward three years before that will actually be a meaningful thing.”
Then there are things like Home and Paper that are coming from the team at Creative Labs, Zuckerberg says — bets that are a lot longer-term: “Maybe in three to five years those will be in the stage where Instagram and Messenger are now. So what we want to do is build a pipeline of experiences for people to have. It would be a mistake to compare any of them in different life cycles to other ones. They’re in different levels.”
As he has mentioned in other interviews (something I wrote about here), Zuckerberg also seems much more open to the idea that these smaller mobile experiences could involve various forms of anonymity or pseudonymity — something Facebook has always been opposed to in the past:
“One of the things that we’re trying to do with Creative Labs and all our experiences is explore things that aren’t all tied to Facebook identity. Some things will be, but not everything will have to be, because there are some sets of experiences that are just better with other identities. I think you should expect to see more of that, where apps are going to be tied to different audiences.”
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Jason McElweenie and AP Images