Yogi Berra, famous for his colorful but logically-tangled turns of phrase, once described a restaurant this way: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
Anyone starting a new social networking site has the opposite problem: it's not crowded enough.
Earlier this year, in the middle of a controversy over Facebook's privacy policies, some college students used the fund-raising site Kickstarter to raise money for Diaspora, which they said would be an open-source alternative to Facebook giving individual users more options for controlling their information and developers more freedom to integrate with the service on their own terms. The developers had a goal of raising $10,000, but soon found themselves with $200,000 in startup funding.
They're now testing the invitation-only first version of their software. The tech commenters I've read or heard so far have been unimpressed, although they admit it's just an alpha test, not a finished product.
Tech commenter Leo Laporte, on his "This Week In Tech" podcast this week, noted that only one of the people to whom he sent invitations had taken them and become his friends on the service.
That points out the problem with starting a new social networking service. It's no fun unless you have people with whom to network.
Facebook has picked up so many users that it has become universal -- at least, among people who do social networking. There are obviously others who have little or no interest in social networking. The more users it picks up, the more useful it becomes, at least in theory, and the harder it will be for Diaspora, or anyone else, to ever challenge it.
Facebook's next upgrade, announced a couple of weeks ago and which will be rolled out in the coming months, will integrate Facebook's various chat and messaging systems more closely with e-mail. It will give younger users of the system, who are more concerned with chat and social networking than long-form e-mail, even less reason to leave Facebook.
Even MySpace, which was once the cool social network, has sent up the white flag and is now using the "Facebook Connect" feature to allow people to log into MySpace using their Facebook accounts, something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.
Laporte himself famously quit his Facebook account in protest over privacy issues, then realized that he couldn't be an effective tech commentator without being part of what has become the Internet equivalent of an essential utility.
The trouble with any potential challenger to Facebook is that it's hard for a social networking tool to take that first step of reaching critical mass. No one is going to use it regularly unless there's someone with whom to network. You have to have a certain elusive minimum number of people to get the ball rolling.
So, is there any stopping Facebook? Absolutely, but it may not be by design so much as by accident. For example, how many people wound up on Facebook as a result of friends inviting them to play Farmville or Mafia Wars? If some equally-desirable game or application winds up on Diaspora (or some other pretender to the throne), and Facebook can't immediately duplicate it, that might drive people to a new system. Or there may be some sort of shift in how we use the Internet. The rise of status updates helped drive Facebook; the rise of some other mode of communications might drive the next big thing.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.