Facebook is a giant in social media, but lately its publicity has seemed like a desperate call for help. In a relatively short span of time, the social media king has made two important moves to keep itself relevant by purchasing WhatsApp and now Oculus, the virtual reality headset maker. While these decisions have made the company more money than it already had, the Facebook acquisition of Oculus for a cool two billion dollars feels a little bit like a middle-aged woman getting Botox injections to stay looking young and vibrant.
There’s no doubt that social media sites have a problem staying relevant. No one wants to go the way of Myspace, whose death is widely believed to be because it just wasn’t cool anymore. The fact that no one uses Myspace anymore is generally accepted and can be seen just by looking at the sharing options on any news or product site. Even the now ancient email sharing option comes before Myspace.
Facebook certainly doesn’t want to end up like its predecessor, but staying relevant is a tricky game. Most social media sites have a gimmick to keep themselves distinguished from everyone else: Twitter has 140 characters, Tumblr has reblogs, and Pinterest has its numerous pins. Facebook, however, has what it has always had – the largest reach of influence of any social media site in the world. That alone would be enough to cement its place on the internet nearly forever. So why does it keep doing kooky things like buying virtual reality producers or hiring its own police?
Part of the reason is that Facebook has become a primary newsmaker in its own right. Anything Facebook does is instantly publicized for free by news organizations. This keeps the website constantly in everyone’s view. It’s hard to become irrelevant when everyone is still talking about you.
The story about hiring its own policeman is a great example of this. In early March, it was announced that Menlo Park where Facebook is based would be hiring a community safety officer with money given by Facebook. It wasn’t exactly the bombshell story everyone thought it would be, mostly because it was a humanitarian move by the company to help its home city. They weren’t really buying in to city corruption by acquiring their own personal police officer.
Instead, Facebook had done something almost completely new – they saw a need, in this case funding for more police officers, and they filled that need, apparently without expecting anything illegal in return. In one simple and relatively cheap move, Facebook had created a paradigm for good corporate citizenship.
This is all part of Facebook’s game to avoid extinction. The more things they do to stay in the limelight, the less likely they will go out of business. But the other, more interesting part is that Facebook is trying to be more than just a one-trick pony. It’s more than just a social media site. It’s an app developer, a good corporate citizen, a high-power member of the stock exchange, and now it will become a force in the world of virtual reality.
Basically, Facebook is becoming a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all of them to by making good business acquisitions. Buying WhatsApp made them the leader in messaging apps. Buying Oculus might just make them the leader in virtual reality, too. There is no way that Facebook is going to let itself die.
For all Facebook’s savvy business dealing in acquiring Oculus, however, it still smacks of the desperation of someone trying to recapture their youth by getting Botox injections. Except they haven’t even tried using makeup yet. Facebook is still billing itself as the clean-cut social media site that focuses on its users rather than making money off them, a what you see is what you get tactic of marketing that belies all its other activities.
Facebook freely admits that it’s cutting down on posts from businesses in everyone’s news feeds in order to avoid undue clutter. Their rational is that not everything can make it on to the main feed, so instead of cutting a post from grandma or that kooky cousin, they are limiting the amount of free advertising. It’s a move calculated to make normal people like Facebook for keeping itself above the sway of obnoxious advertisers.
That’s the unvarnished version that Facebook would like everyone to believe, but the truth is that it’s the perfect opportunity to make more money off advertisers. If the free pages aren’t getting as much publicity, then businesses will be forced to buy ads which means more revenue for Facebook. So, yes, it’s a nice thing for normal human users, but it also means more profit from businesses.
This isn’t exactly a shady business plan, but it’s not exactly pure as the wind-driven snow either. Facebook seems to make a lot of people feel like they are not being completely honest. With the announcement that they bought Oculus, this feeling might actually have back-fired on them for once.
When the news broke, Minecraft game creator Markus Persson made plain his feelings about the deal on Twitter. He said that Facebook creeps him out and he won’t be doing business with them because of that fact. So the deal that he was planning to make with Oculus to bring the hit game Minecraft to their virtual reality screens is officially off and now possibly going to their competitors at Sony who are creating their own virtual reality headset.
This isn’t something that will kill Facebook’s success in virtual reality, but it isn’t great news, either. Minecraft is a hugely popular game with a large swath of people. Not having it their new headset means that many people who won’t be giving their money to Facebook. In the long run, though, it probably doesn’t matter. Soon, Facebook could be having people gambling on Zynga or playing Farmville and Candy Crush while wearing their new Oculus headsets. With options like that, who really needs Minecraft?
Still, Persson’s reaction highlights what many people have been feeling for quite some time now. The acquisition of Oculus is just the latest instance where people are looking askance at Facebook, much as they would look at someone right after they got their injection of Botox. It just doesn’t look or feel natural. In fact, it’s really starting to creep them out.
Opinion By Lydia Webb