Beware Marketers: A Major Flaw in Zuckerberg’s Law

Remember Zuckerberg’s Law? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously articulated it at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco in November 2008:

“I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before,” he told the assembled masses. “That means that people are using Facebook, and the applications and the ecosystem, more and more.” That simple statement was received as an oracular pronouncement in large part because various observers, including The New York Times’ Saul Hansell, immediately dubbed it Zuckerberg’s Law. It was an obvious echo of Moore’s Law, the historical computing trend first described in 1965 by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, who noted that the number of transistors contained on mass-produced chips — i.e., computing power — tends to double every year.

Zuckerberg, of course, has done much to make sure his pronouncement would come true — effectively forcing users to share more and more by tweaking the Facebook interface and its privacy policies, as well as by signing deals with the likes of Spotify so that Facebook-user activities would be automatically shared.

But it turns out that there’s a law that trumps Zuckerberg’s Law: the Law of Diminishing Returns.

General Motors certainly sees it that way, given that it announced it was pulling $10 million of its paid advertising from Facebook just before the social network IPO’d, citing the ads’ lack of effectiveness. Facebook has been scrambling ever since to counter that bad bit of publicity, notably releasing a research report last week from its partner ComScore suggesting that, gosh, Facebook ads do work. But columnists and digital marketing experts around the globe state that the intent of Com Score report was “to show that exposure to earned-media impressions — or content that a brand’s fans or their friends might see organically — results in more purchases. It also said premium Facebook ads result in more purchases.”

The ComScore report had to be taken with a grain of salt — it was commissioned by Facebook, after all — but was certainly a welcome hit of good PR for the social network, especially given the data that ComScore had released just a day earlier. Facebook’s U.S. uniques, said ComScore, creeped up just 5% in April, year-over-year, vs. 24% year-over-year growth in April 2011 and 89% in April 2010. Obviously, Facebook is reaching market saturation in much of the First World.

But that’s OK, right? Because Facebook can keep on making more and more friends at the corporate/partner level with the right sort of people — like Tim Cook, Apple‘s CEO. Last week, Apple announced that the forthcoming upgrades of its mobile and desktop operating systems would more tightly integrate with Facebook. Whether you’re a heavy or light Facebook user, that’s supposed to make your life easier/better.

But as ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan put it in a post last week titled “iOS 6 Facebook Integration: A Frictionless Sharing Nightmare,” the promise of getting to “log in to Facebook once and share away” without having to worry about launching an app, will soon result in way too many people who will “forget they’re oversharing and ultimately have a cringeworthy event. … Unless you manage Facebook closely, you’ll wind up sharing more than you want. Aside from the obvious battery-life issues, the integration may encourage people to stay logged out of Facebook.”

As Ad Age reader Jeff Greenhouse put it in a comment on last week, “From my own perspective, if my friends share twice as much content on Facebook, I’m not likely to spend much more time than I do now looking at it. There’s a good chance that all that extra content will just flow past me unnoticed. I’m not convinced that there is much extra untapped time/attention out there.”

For me, the idea of forcing us to all live in an ecosystem that turns our mobile devices and laptops into persistent tattletales is not only useless but maddening. Automatically disseminating/publishing certain information at mass scale — like what your “friends” are consuming at any given time — is simply a waste of time and bandwidth.

And to brand marketers: Good luck trying to get noticed amid the deluge.

How is it that Mark Zuckerberg, obviously a smart fellow, cannot see all this? How could a guy who has focused quite intently on some things in his life — like building Facebook — could not be aware of the limits of consumer cognition and human attention spans? How could a guy so brilliant not understand that his increasingly overshare-y Facebook is diminishing our collective capacity to focus on the stuff we really might care about in social media, let alone advertising messages?


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