Bob Guccione Jr. is an iconic figure in modern journalism, who started SPIN and GEAR magazines and owned DISCOVER magazine. He helped define new journalism at a time when it was on the wane and appeared to be more concerned with mass appeal. This is his take on Facebook.
I'm going to miss this column. It's been glorious writing it and time has, incredibly, passed in a flash. But all things must come to an end and no matter how much you prepare yourself, you're never quite prepared for the bittersweet emotions.
If you're a little confused, don't be --- this is, it is true, my FIRST column too, it's just that I am sure by the end of it, it will be my last, because my editor will fire me for embarrassing her. I wanted to say goodbye now in case I didn't get the chance later.
First I'm going to do some Sacred Cow tipping. I think the people who invested and will invest in Facebook's public offering are going to lose their money.
Lost amid the pageantry and intoxicating religious ecstasy of Facebook coming to market, necessary to inflate the stock price beyond any relationship to reality, are some sobering facts.
For one, their revenues slowed in 2012, despite a customer base ballooning to 901 million users. That is a bit of peeled gold leaf on the supposedly solid gold throne. And there are more and more public whisperings of skepticism at the value of advertising delivered. David Eastman, worldwide head of digital advertising for JWT, told the NY Times last week that although most brands want to be on Facebook, they don't fully understand who gets their messages and are unconvinced it translates into better business for them. "Right now the value of Facebook advertising is largely unknown," he said.
The stock price at the end of its first day of public trading was 106 times earnings. That's totally out of whack with business principles. If you owned a bakery, or a taxi service, or a magazine, you would not be able to sell it for 106 times what the business makes. And if the underwriting banks hadn't bought huge chunks of the stock to prop it up, it would have fallen beneath the opening price, which would have been embarrassing but more importantly given people pause as to the real value of the company.
More than half of the people who access Facebook do so on mobile devices that the company ADMITS it makes little or no money on, and has no certainty its mobile strategies will work. The likelihood is they won't. A fundamental problem is the difficulty of delivering ads on small screens crowded with the content people are checking. We may one day have the technology to deliver ads on the head of a pin, but at a certain point you shrink a message beyond purposefulness. That is a flaw in the company's potential.
But I think Facebook has already peaked. If you look away from the blinding magnesium-burning glow of the hype of how many users it has, you can see that a lot of people once obsessed with Facebook now use it less. To many it has receded to a service, useful for mass inquiries for recommendations, or learning about something you would have learned about some other way anyway, if it was important.
The once giddy sense that you have more friends than you really do dissolves. It gets, ultimately, exhausting feeding the beast. The luster wears off of posting every photograph you ever took, or memorializing every movement or observation. There are only so many times a person can exclaim LOL or WTF before his or her soul just gives up and disintegrates to ash.
I have never wanted a Facebook page. I like --- treasure --- the fact that I have lost contact with people I didn't like much in high school, or the first office I worked in, or I met once on a bus thirty years ago. It would frighten me to be suddenly invaded by those people. They are mixed memories, the way God planned them to be. And I am to them. Why drag around the emotional corpses of a lifetime?
I actually DO have a Facebook page. I didn't put it there, no-one knows who did or why. It is unvisited, like an anonymous and unattended grave, unadorned, gray and stale. But as unwanted as it is by all 901 million Facebook users and me, it won't go away. It cannot be removed. When I was told about it years ago by people annoyed I wouldn't friend them, I asked my assistant to deal with it and get the imposter page taken down. She's a friggin' tech genius and she couldn't. It even got into the press about her futile attempts.
Which brings me to the reason I will be fired --- that assistant is now my editor here. One day she asked if she could borrow my iPhone, the first version. I had used it for about a week, didn't particularly like it, gave it to her and more or less forgot about it. But years later I remembered she had it and asked for it back, but it was gone. She knew not where, she said. And looked at me like I had two heads and asked why I would even want a phone that was several generations out of date?
I hadn't thought of that but that's not the point, is it?
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