MySpace became irrelevant practically overnight. What would happen to the media if Facebook did the same? Call it the Facebook Contingency.
MySpace had one of the largest user bases ever collected on the internet. It was, for its time, superlative: It had the most people, the most content, and the most money of any site of its kind.
Then it was gone. When Facebook, which had previously targeted only students, opened to the general public, MySpace didn't have a chance. Facebook was cleaner, more sophisticated, and had the ultimate internet intoxicant of the time: real names. Users fled. MySpace fell faster than it rose.
MySpace — at least, the version that entered the cultural zeitgeist — effectively ended in 2010, when it lost, according to some estimates, more than two-thirds of its users.
This isn't to say that Facebook's position in 2013 is comparable MySpace's in 2009. For one, there is no obvious new Facebook — that is, there is no obvious replacement for Facebook in the way that Facebook was an obvious replacement for MySpace. But there are signs that Facebook is losing users in its most mature markets and that users' attention is drifting. More importantly, no major internet services are immune from collapse. So the Facebook contingency is at least worth considering. It'd be irresponsible to ignore!
MySpace's collapse was largely self-contained; it took a big bite out of News Corps' profits, but it didn't have extensive ripple effects. A Facebook collapse would be less manageable: The new economies that it has created — its app ecosystem, its advertising network — would be demolished, of course. Also notable is the profound effect a MySpace-style collapse would have on the media — the same media that would be charged with covering said collapse.
According to data collected from the BuzzFeed Partner network, which tracks visitors to an assortment of major news and entertainment sites with over 350 million combined monthly visitors, Facebook accounts for over 75 million — more than 20%. The number is certainly higher for many newer media organizations, such as BuzzFeed, whose audiences depend on social networks for news.
The rise of Facebook referrals in the BuzzFeed network has corresponded, at least recently, with a fall in Google referrals. One, in other words, is replacing the other. But replacements are never exact: Facebook overtaking MySpace, a superficially similar service, had the effect of pumping millions of eyeballs to outside media organizations; as Facebook's real, identity-bound photos and personal information glued users to the site in a way that MySpace's cluttered data never could, Facebook's News Feed directed them outward in a way that MySpace's blog-centric design never did. The media reaped the benefits of the changing of the guard — it coincidentally had a friend in the new de facto social network, and just in time.
Recent research suggests that the next wave of social networks may not be as generous to outside content providers. Instagram and Vine and Snapchat and WhatsApp and Kik do not replace Facebook and Twitter in terms of functionality, but that doesn't matter — they draw from the same pool of available attention. Facebook stole users' attention from MySpace by being a better MySpace, then it grew into something more — the new wave of apps (and yes, they're mostly apps) is stealing attention away from Facebook by each being something less.
If the next great social media shift truly is from centralized, profile-based social networks to decentralized feeds, distributed profiles, and private messaging, content providers will face a reckoning. Mark Zuckerberg recently described Facebook's new News Feed as a sort of personalized "newspaper," which was reassuring to a media industry rushing to colonize it. But Snapchat's users have never bought a newspaper in their lives. As they become adults, these people will still need to know things that adults need to know, and be interested in things adults have always been interested in. But while their impulses are familiar, their means of satisfying may be unrecognizable.
We should also assume that, in the event of a user exodus, Facebook will try to adapt its service to the new new future of social media — the one where links to traditional news stories may be less important. To suggest that Facebook has been a success because it was a great place to find news would be wrong; likewise, it's far from safe to assume Facebook's news-spreading ability is the pure product of user demand and that it will be fully preserved and distributed among new platforms.
A 20% decrease in audience, or a broader trend away from link-sharing on the largest social networks, could be disastrous for an industry where 20% year-over-year traffic growth is a prerequisite for success.