RPT-Facebook may 'lock in' its Internet dominance

Wed Jan 27, 2010 1:33pm EST

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* More than 100 million Facebook members in United States

* Social network may be nearing "technological lock-in" (Repeats with no change to text)

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, Jan 27 (Reuters) - College senior Alyssa Ravasio gave up MySpace on the day she got a Facebook account and never looked back. She has already lost interest in Twitter. But how does Facebook know it can keep her loyalty?

The brief history of the Internet is littered with the ghosts of Websites that people have abandoned in their relentless pursuit of something newer, faster, better and cooler.

Tech-savvy Ravasio, a 21-year-old UCLA student designing her undergraduate degree around the Internet's impact on society and communication, is irked by changes privately owned Facebook has made.

But for now, she says, Facebook is keeping her allegiance because of a concept called "technological lock-in." In other words, the site has become an essential part of her life.

"I think Facebook is the most valuable Internet commodity in existence, more so than Google, because they are positioning themselves to be our online identity via Facebook connect," Ravasio said.

"It's your real name, it's your real friends, and assuming they manage to navigate the privacy quagmire, they're poised to become your universal login," she said. "I would almost argue that Facebook is the new mobile phone. It's the new thing you need to keep in touch, almost a requirement of modern social life."

THE QWERTY KEYBOARD

Technological lock-in is the idea that the more a society adopts a certain technology, the more unlikely users are to switch. Its the reason why the QWERTY keyboard layout, devised for typewriters in the 1870s, is still the standard despite the development of several more logical configurations.

And Facebook, which has more than 100 million users in the United States and 350 million worldwide, appears to have nearly achieved technological lock-in, according to web marketing research company Comscore.com.

In December, for example, Facebook recorded nearly 112 million unique visitors in the United States, compared to 57 million for MySpace and 20 million for Twitter, according to Comscore.

Users also spent much longer on Facebook, averaging 246.9 minutes in December, compared to 112.7 minutes on MySpace and 24.3 minutes on Twitter.

"It's something that feeds on itself," Comscore director Andrew Lipsman said. "The more people who come into the network, the more connected they become to each other and there actually becomes a greater cost to leaving the network."

"At some point it becomes a critical mass," he said. "It becomes so strong that its difficult to unlock and I think Facebook has reached that point."

Skeptics might say that the same argument could have been made for MySpace just a few years ago, when it reigned supreme among social networking sites to the extent that few American teens would be caught dead without an account.

'THEIR GAME TO LOSE'

But those who study web trends say that MySpace, while wildly popular, never quite reached the worldwide domination of Facebook, which then-Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg started in his dorm room in 2004.

Facebook initially limited membership to Harvard, then universities, a move that heightened the draw for teens. And once Facebook opened registration to anyone in 2006, it was flooded with members between the ages of 25 to 45.

Tim Groeling, a professor of communication studies at UCLA, said that because it was possible to sign up for Facebook without dumping MySpace, many young people had accounts on both sites until the center of gravity slowly shifted to Facebook.

"MySpace wasn't focused as much on the social networking aspect, which they seem to enjoy. It wasn't quite the tight-knit social machine that Facebook seems to be," he said.

"Facebook has a certain amount of lock-in that's going to be hard for people to get past," Groeling said. "It's possible it could happen, but it has to overcome a high threshold of user cost. It's their game to lose at this point."

Ravasio says that, technological lock-in aside, Facebook could potentially lose her if it keeps annoying her, as it did when it abruptly changed a default privacy setting so that members' pictures were public.

"All these (Internet) companies saying they'll figure out how to monetize later seem to be forgetting that 'monetizing' has historically always meant a degradation of user experience quality," she said.

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