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Facebook hype will fade

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Facebook seems ascendant as MySpace declines, with rumors of layoffs
  • But Goldman Sachs' Facebook investment, he says, is more a sign Facebook is cashing out
  • Murdoch bought MySpace at site's peak; site's popularity already fallen, he says
  • Rushkoff: Social networks wax, wane; Facebook hype obscures that it's likely on way down

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff is the author, most recently, of "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back" , and "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age"

(CNN) -- All signs for Facebook appear to be pointing up.

Mark Zuckerberg is Time's Man of the Year, the movie about him seems likely to be an Oscar winner, and now Goldman Sachs is raising $1.5 billion from its favorite investors on behalf of the social networking company.

At the very same moment, Facebook's only real competitor --NewsCorps' waning social networking site, MySpace -- is shedding employees and expenses, most likely in hopes of a fire sale.

But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, as I read the situation, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Facebook. These aren't the symptoms of a company that is winning, but one that is cashing out.

Indeed, 11 years ago this week, when AOL announced its $350 billion merger with Time Warner, I was asked to write an OpEd for the New York Times explaining what the deal between old and new media companies really meant. I said that AOL was cashing in its over-valued dotcom stock in order to purchase a stake in a "real" media company with movie studios, theme parks and even cable. In short, the deal meant AOL knew their reign was over.

The Times didn't run the piece. Of course, the merger turned out to be a disaster: AOL's revenue stream was reduced to a trickle as net users ventured out onto the Web directly.

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Likewise, Rupert Murdoch's 2005 purchase of MySpace for $580 million coincided pretty much exactly with the website's peak of popularity. People blamed corporate ownership for the social network's demise, but the cycle had already begun.

Now, it's Facebook's turn. This week's news that Goldman Sachs has chosen to invest in Facebook while entreating others to do the same should inspire about as much confidence as their investment in mortgage securities did in 2008. For those who weren't watching, that's when Goldman got rich betting against the investments it was selling.

This time, Goldman is putting up some millions of its own -- as if this skin in the game means they couldn't be up to their old tricks. But the commissions and underwriting fees Goldman is earning for selling that other $1.5 billion of private Facebook shares could be enough to offset the cost of their own investment. And bets against Facebook could be leveraged any number of times.

These are the kinds of points those of us who lived through the AOL-Time Warner merger, the MySpace deal and the rest of the dotcom and real estate crashes now raise about such deals. These are also precisely the kinds of points that don't get addressed under the new, privatized and utterly opaque scheme Goldman has devised on behalf of its client, Facebook.

Unlike a public offering of shares, this private offering to Goldman's clients doesn't obligate Facebook to come clean on its real profits. It doesn't have to submit to standard accounting practice, or indicate how well it's really doing or isn't doing. It gets to remain in the safe cloud of hype that protects all such ventures until they either make a real profit or die trying.

The object of the game, for any one of these ultimately temporary social networks, is to create the illusion that it is different, permanent, invincible and too big to fail. And to be sure, Facebook has gone about as far as any of them has at creating that illusion.

If you were there for Compuserve, AOL, Tripod, Friendster, Orkut, MySpace or LinkedIn, you might have believed the same thing about any one of those social networks. Remember when those CD Roms from AOL came in the mail almost every day? The company was considered ubiquitous, invincible. Former AOL CEO Steve Case was no less a genius than Mark Zuckerberg.

Further confirming that the hype and market has reached its peak, social networking competitor LinkedIn is maneuvering toward its own IPO, which it likely hopes to complete before Facebook eventually gets there and poisons the well. These companies are being valued as if they will be our permanent means for identifying ourselves.

Yet social media is itself as temporary as any social gathering, nightclub or party. It's the people that matter, not the venue. So when the trend leaders of one social niche or another decide the place everyone is socializing has lost its luster or, more important, its exclusivity, they move on to the next one, taking their followers with them. (Facebook's successor will no doubt provide an easy "migration utility" through which you can bring all your so-called friends with you, if you even want to.)

We will move on, just as we did from the chat rooms of AOL, without even looking back. When the place is as ethereal as a website, our allegiance is much more abstract than it is to a local pub or gym. We don't live there, we don't know the owner, and we are all the more ready to be incensed by the latest change to a privacy policy, or to learn that every one of our social connections has been sold to the highest corporate bidder.

So it's not that MySpace lost and Facebook won. It's that MySpace won first, and Facebook won next. They'll go down in the same order.

The longer the company can maintain the illusion of great profits without alienating its user base, the longer they can delay the inevitable decline. But given that Facebook has already begun cashing in its chips, that moment has quite likely arrived.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.