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Can Facebook bring the magic back?

Mark Zuckerberg serious

We'll be live blogging Facebook's event tomorrow starting at 10AM PT / 1PM ET. Check it out here!

There’s no numerical evidence that Facebook has "lost its cool," but you can feel it. You hear people talking about it. Instead of seeing Facebook blue illuminating the phones of fellow subway and bus riders, you see Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter. Facebook has become a normal thing — a "social utility" everyone uses but few are excited about. Tomorrow morning Facebook is hosting a big event at its Menlo Park headquarters, the first event of its scale in ages, and an opportunity to rejuvenate itself after a string of misfires focused more on winning the confidence of investors than the hearts of its current users.

Facebook likely makes hundreds of minor tweaks to its site per week, but we haven’t seen much in terms of big, game-changing social features since Timeline profile pages launched more than a year ago. Since Facebook’s IPO last year, it has seemed laser-focused on short-term-bet features built in response to investors who have become increasingly skeptical of the company. Facebook has turned its attention to experimental money-making initiatives like Gifts, and a LinkedIn-esque pay-per-message service.

The company has turned its attention to experimental money-making initiatives like Gifts

The coolest new features to launch lately are Photo Sync and free VoIP calling in the company’s Messenger app, both of which are features grabbed from other services. Photo Sync uploads your phone’s photos any time you open Facebook — but Google+ did it first. A new update to Messenger for iPhone lets you send voice messages, and more importantly lets you make free calls over Wi-Fi or 3G / 4G to other Messenger users (albeit first in Canada) — but Viber and Skype did it first. Yet, the internet was impressed. "Wait…is Facebook doing something for its users that might actually be considered…an improvement?!" wrote Verge reader Jason Kallelis.

Facebook has the technical proficiency to accomplish anything

What’s most compelling about VoIP over Messenger is that it’s Facebook encouraging raw communication between people the way it once did. Gifts are a wonderful way to communicate in real life, but Facebook Gifts cost money (unlike most every other Facebook feature) and feel ancillary to the company’s mission: "to make the world more open and connected." Some of the best Facebook features are the ones that truly "take the experience of college online" — Facebook admitted in its News Feed launch post that it’s a great way to see "when your crush is single again." That stuff was fun. The new stuff seems like straight up "monetization." Scrap "stay focused and keep shipping," and pin up "get nervous and build something amazing."

Facebook’s mobile apps like Messenger and Facebook Camera have received frequent updates, showing the social network at its most agile. It’s obvious that Facebook has the technical proficiency to accomplish anything (Poke, the company’s shameless Snapchat clone, took just 12 days to build), but seems to be lacking in inspiration. Facebook has attempted local deals, check-ins, and recommendations time and time again, and its most recent attempt, "Nearby," looks just like Foursquare but offers no compelling reason to switch. Facebook used to create the features other companies were jealous of. Lately, it seems to be the jealous one, copying features (and sometimes even acquiring a company) in fear of losing relevance.

If Facebook wants its mojo back, it needs to excite its users

So what might Facebook launch tomorrow? There are plenty of "iterative" features Facebook might go with, like a revamped search that lets you dive into years of photos, statuses, and friendships to find specific moments. Facebook has had years to add improved search, but has sat idle while comparatively tiny startup Path totally nailed an innovative search feature a few weeks ago. Another cool thing would be smartphone software for third world countries — an OLPC phone platform that turns cheap phones into social networking machines. The company already has deals in place with some service providers to let users access Facebook Zero, a barebones version of the social network, free of charge. "For [people in some developing countries], the Internet and Facebook are more or less the same," Quartz reporter Christopher Mims told Here and Now, "Especially since Facebook is the one thing that’s free on these phones."

If Facebook wants its mojo back, it needs to excite its users, whether it's the current billion users or the next billion. Facebook’s best and at one point most controversial feature, News Feed, is now filled with external content from advertisers, Spotify, Instagram, and BuzzFeed links your friends have shared, making it busier and less personal. The site has turned into a maximalist social graph, where there’s a place for everything you click, listen to, and post. As users’ friend counts have ballooned over the years, so have the reasons to diversify your social networking and take your statuses, blog posts, photos, and likes elsewhere.

At tomorrow's event, it's important for Facebook to show it can still take greater risks, with fewer copycat apps and features. After months of inviting everyone else in, it's time for Facebook to bring us back.

The Verge
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