What does the future of Facebook look like?

facebook screensFacebook, despite any criticisms, is still the social network – but its engagement problem is no secret. We’ll cut to the chase: Facebook needs to provide users more value to keep us coming back – before it’s too late.

The problem is that Facebook has always been a passive listener of everything we’re sharing, and sometimes that’s leading to regurgitation. That’s why the company has been busy pulling out all the stops with feature updates that are trying to keep everyone happy. The result? A Facebook we hardly recognized. Think back to when you originally opened your account – if it was more than two or three years ago, you know what we’re talking about.

The Facebook of 2004 looks nothing like that Facebook of 2013 … so what is the Future Facebook going to look like? Consider this a look into the Internet’s crystal ball, full of hypotheses about what the Future Facebook is like.

Death of the Like, rise of the social signal

If there’s anything we’ve learned about Facebook, it’s that Likes don’t always translate to … well, likes. We’ve all Liked things to enter a contest, get a free meal, or out of pity for a friend’s new business. They’re a sort of bargaining tool that brands use, and this means they are less useful when it comes to signaling real interests.   

Recognizing this, Facebook has tried to move outside the Like. The Open Graph introduced verbs like “Want,” “Watch,” and “Read.” From these, Facebook is able to get a better understanding of our relationship with media or products in a much better, more finite way. Think of it this way: If you liked the Facebook Page of To Kill a Mockingbird would Facebook know why you’ve liked it? Not really. So if Facebook isn’t able to tell you why you’ve liked the book, it has to guess how much value that book has to the user. Now if you use Open Graph to indicate you’ve bought and read the book, that’s a significant difference.

Still, Open Graph actions don’t tell the whole story – they’re really just an evolution of the Like. The next phase is contextually understanding this social data.

Social ad firm Salorix also says the datasets Facebook could be capable of analyzing and using in some way include: “Time of Post/Update, Location, Content Used, Followers, Following, Source/Device used, Clustering of Posts/Updates – Verticals Attribution, User Profile, Designation, Industry, Demographic, Behavioral, and Psychographic Traits of User data.”

Facebook might also be able to tell where you’re Facebooking from¸ be it your living room or a crowded train. Using your device’s built in features like its microphone to listen to the ambient noise; Facebook might benefit from these soundscape signals, determine your environment, and adjust accordingly (for instance, if you’re at home with TV on, maybe more info in your News Feed about what’s on TV would be useful).

As for visual signals, a handful of social media experts and developers believe will build an image recognition algorithm.

Photo sharing is an important vertical for Facebook. In addition to being a popular social trend, images are also full of signals that Facebook could use to better target content and ads. Expertmaker’s CTO and founder Lars Hard explains that even a very rudimentary form of an image recognition algorithm, like being able to tell whether a photo is light or dark, would do Facebook wonders. The difference between light and dark could tell Facebook whether the photo was taken indoors or outdoors and provide geographical context.

This is why our News Feeds are littered with ads that don’t really seem to have any contextual relevance to our true interests. Hard says that Facebook in its current state has “simple recommenders running through a network that understands all connections, and runs statistical models of it and makes recommendations.” In other words, Facebook is stuck with Likes and other type of Open Graph signals users feed Facebook that determine what ads and stories show up in our News Feeds.

Graph Search 2.0

Graph Search hasn’t even been entirely rolled out yet, but the early implications point to this being a huge endeavor for Facebook and one that’s going to greatly impact how future users will use the platform.

“There is need for people to find a variety of other people, and often the greatest value for individuals is finding people they don’t know already to benefit their lives, whether those connections can benefit their career, home life, family life, or entertainment,” says people search site MyLife CEO Jeff Tinsley.

Future Facebook could turn this into a tool for engaging and interacting with other users in real time – say you’re looking to go hiking on a certain weekend, Facebook might be able to tell you who to contact and why. Or you’re trying to find people that also really like animated GIF blogs – things that maybe people do outside of Facebook that they aren’t sharing there. You could start knowing these things.

To do this, Facebook might starting looking at signals like Web browsing habits (since Facebook tracks this already), or similarities in the types of content matched users like to publish on Facebook. It might even look at parallels in the cliques of friends that you tend to interact with to figure out if you might be a good fit with the person you’ve been recommended.

graph search exampleAnd eventually, Future Facebook will roll out Graph Search to mobile. Obvious utilities for this would be for searching for highly recommended or rated restaurants nearby, friends you can hang out with within 10 miles of your current location, or even simply finding out more about a popular landmark you’re visiting and places to shop around the area.

An alternative utility that Salorix CEO Santanu Bhattacharya finds in Graph Search is as a “one stop platform for users to buy and search any products based on friend’s recommendations and reviews.” So if you’re looking to buy something, Facebook might be able to tell you how good or bad the product is. Taking this a step further, Bhattacharya adds that this feature can easily tie into mobile via a Facebook mobile wallet like Google Wallet or Apple’s Passbook for “one-touch” purchases of these items. So maybe the physical card was just a warm up, eh Future Facebook?

A real-time News Feed

The News Feed is a constant source of frustration – and maybe that’s because while we change all the time, the way it responds to us never does. What if you’re from the east coast, but go to school on the west coast? Why couldn’t Facebook read your location and provide you more relevant updates depending on where you are?

Responding to us in real-time is another way Future Facebook could update the News Feed. YieldMo software engineer Alex Gallego, reasons that Facebook is or will be hard at work on real-time notifications as it’s tied into the mobile app. He explains to me that the days when Facebook was about what people have done in the past is outdated. The future is in “what people are doing now.”

fb status example real time

Bhattacharya agrees. “[Context and intent] need to be delivered in near real-time as the ‘half-life’ [where engagement drops by 90 percent] of people’s interest in a context and their intent can be as little as couple of hours for most categories for products and services.”

Products like Highlight, Google Now, Field Trip, and even Twitter are trying to understood that everything its users say or do has a purpose. These apps are meeting our needs not just by listening, but by understanding and adapting to our objectives, and they’re doing it in real-time.

Gallego goes as far to suggest that Facebook should start mimicking the Twitter stream and microblogging. An early hint we’re heading in this direction? Facebook’s considering the hashtag.

Mass introduction of the posting prompts

Lately Facebook is exposing an aggressive nature to get users and brands to publish more content. It’s an effort to improve its relatively withering engagement levels. You may have noticed a new pen icon in the upper right hand corner, near your name, on the desktop homepage encouraging you to post your Timeline. 

what's on your mindIn this new pop up, and for a while now, Facebook has been asking you, “What’s on your mind?” But lately some administrators of brand pages have spied a prompt in their Facebook Pages that not only asks brands what they’ve been up to, but also throws in suggestions of what they should post.

Future Facebook could employ this strategy to everyone. For example, let’s say you’re visiting a foreign country; Facebook’s prompt (whether via a push notification or prompt) might ask “Why don’t you share your photos from [country]?”

example fb prompt

Here today … here tomorrow

Very likely, yes. The naysayers will predict that Facebook is doing itself if, the nimbler apps are eating away at its users base and that in the years to come, Facebook will be a distant memory with the likes of Friendster and Myspace (though that comparison hardly makes sense anymore – but for old time’s sake …). But the reality is Facebook is different than the other networks that have faded into the past, and it holds much of lives and social data hostage, for better or worse. We can only muse on what the Future Facebook looks like, but there is one thing for certain: In some way, shape, or form, Facebook will exist – very likely beyond our lifetimes. 

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