Here's a quick experiment. Using your phone, go to your profile page on Facebook and scroll down to the listing for your "Friends." Take a moment to congratulate yourself on the vast number of friends you have (sadly, the list is limited to 5,000) and then click on the "See All Friends" button and start scrolling down again. Pretty soon you'll see names without the accompanying "Friends" indicator.  When you click on any of those names, you'll get a pop-up notice headed "Account Inactive" that goes on to say that this account has been deactivated-- although you can choose to still stay friends. Only the friendly folks at Facebook would suggest that you remain friends with a zombie account so their overall account numbers can continue to be ginormous, grossly inaccurate and clearly over-inflated -- even before counting the bots. Who but the gnomes at Facebook knows where those accounts really went?

 If your experience is similar to mine, it will become obvious after a little scrolling and a few clicks that some "friends" are people you've never heard of, could care less about, or are happy to be rid of, while a fair number are real people, acquaintances or even friends IRL. It's a little disconcerting to think that, although you're not sure why, you're no longer connected to them in the big blue FB blob. This is probably not your doing or fault and it's highly unlikely that FB decided to shut them off. The reality is that Facebook might have disappointed them so much that they finally checked out, signed off, and bagged the whole thing. And yet, clicking that nasty, red-colored "unfriend" button is difficult because -- although it seems like simple good housekeeping and frees up slots for more friends -- abruptly unfriending people even knowing their accounts are inactive or long gone seems so final and even a bit draconian. 

 Then again, do they know something that you don't? Have they "woken" up while you're still in the weeds? Keep in mind, as you see more and more of these dearly departed and inactives scroll by, that these aren't mopes; they're a bunch of people that you actually know and like. What's the deal?  Could it be that FB has become a blemish rather than the blessing that it used to be?  Not too many heavy-duty influencers are bragging about their Facebook pages these days. It's a little bit like still using an AOL or YAHOO email address. 

Are all your friends fleeing Facebook without telling you? Did you miss the memo? Have the unwritten rules been re-written? It used to be so simple and now it's so hard to keep up.  And then there's always FOMO to boot - what if everyone who's anyone is hanging out elsewhere? After all, as in the bar in Cheers, we all wanna be where everyone knows our name. And that, of course, is the absolute genius of Mark Zuckerberg's invention. 

Give the Zuck his due-- he's one clever dude. Just think about how far he's come. One of his greatest early accomplishments was to reposition the Facebook origin story (until that pesky Social Network movie came along) to wrap it in the comforting concept of serendipitous social connections rather than promoting its initial and much creepier implementation as a snarky collegiate vehicle for comparing and designating which women on campus were hot and which were not.

 It's pretty clear, by the way, that version 1.0 would have never gotten out of that shabby dorm room in today's #MeToo climate, even with the superpowered shield of Sheryl Sandberg running interference and making constant apologies. What began as a crass but cunning tool for sharing purloined view book images so that the bros and nerds could taunt and shame women otherwise beyond their reach quickly morphed into a socially-acceptable service that cloaked itself in the finery of finding "friends" and forging closer "family" bonds. 

 And, as soon as FB opened the floodgates, we all jumped into the pool. Aggregating friends quickly became an acceptable activity and soon morphed into somewhat of an adrenaline-driven addiction. If anything, "likes" upped the ante even more. It was all about more. Before we knew it (and often before we knew them) many of us had "friends" galore. Facebook's founders created a system that successfully and consistently exploited some of our most basic and basest behaviors.  

 We always knew that status mattered. But, in the past, status was largely controlled and conferred upon a limited number of the carefully anointed by a small coterie of gatekeepers-- from their own select silos-- and each beholden only to their own tribes. The web, and the advent of social networks, blew that cloistered world apart and suddenly anyone and everyone had new digital power to create status for themselves and others, to confer status on anyone they chose, and to publish status, rankings, ratings, etc. across the globe. 

 Entire industries emerged focused exclusively on the care and curation of one's social status-- friends, followers, likes, clicks, Klout and Kred scores, etc.  The foundation under virtually all of it was the unavoidable and irreplaceable Facebook platform. If you weren't there, you were nowhere. And Facebook's masters were glad you were there. But maybe there's increasingly less "there" there these days. The question for several years now has been, how long can Facebook  retain even a semblance of that initial cachet in spite of being associated with some of the most manipulative and devious behavior and foreign intrigue that we've ever seen?

 In the new, capital-light, digital economy Facebook has become one of the two absolute masters of manufacturing and delivering massive, high-margin virtual ad viewers to marketers and advertisers rather than manufacturing anything as pedestrian as a car or a movie. As for the rest of us, if you're not being paid for your time, attention and personal data (and no one is), you're more likely to be the product that's being sold. As a result, Facebook, and Google, own the digital advertising space, which recently blew past TV in terms of total ad spend, and they both continue to print money.

 If Facebook's the queen of digital media marketing, Google's been the undisputed king for quite a while and employs a very similar scam. Google consistently claims to be doing us all the favor of organizing the world's information rather than admitting that its fundamental focus and primary business model is aggregating and then selling minute slices of our attention and mindshare to the highest-bidding advertisers. Just like Facebook. They don't sell products and services to consumers. They provide those for free. What they sell are audiences to advertisers.

Now Amazon is making a serious run at both of them.   The past revenues of the social media and search channels have been mainly data-driven and they haven't been successfully converted into direct sales channels. This is beginning to change and it's where Amazon's ultimate advantage lives. While your best friends and family may be fleeing Facebook, no one's about to stop shopping on Amazon any time soon. 

 Amazon's two-track take is slightly different and more sustainable over the long run --it's not just a growing advertising conduit based on increasingly fickle folks.  Amazon is the actual sales, storage and delivery channel as well, acting both as a distributor/wholesaler and for its own account. Amazon uses the same types of aggregated data along with individual purchase histories to increasingly improve its ability to precisely identify what products to directly offer and sell to you, in addition to deciding what ads to show you. By year end, Amazon should be selling more than 80 of its own private label brands and products to shoppers. 

 I'm not sure how we will solve the mystery of Facebook's living dead. I'm not gonna call these folks up and ask them if they quit FB, although the numbers about rapidly falling user engagement with Facebook are pretty clear. I'd say that without the volumes and activity of Messenger and Instagram, the growing cracks in the Facebook façade would start to become increasingly obvious and the end might well be in sight. 

 As the Zuck is fond of saying: "if we don't create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will."  Or maybe they won't need to. Could it be that that boat has already sailed?

Published on: Jul 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.