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If Mark Zuckerberg is the next Oprah, Facebook is in trouble

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced on his page recently that he has vowed to read a book every other week in 2015, with an emphasis on learning about different beliefs and cultures. Zuckerberg created a “Year of Books” page and urged his friends to join him in the project.  (Alex Washburn/AP)

When Mark Zuckerberg makes a New Year’s resolution, people notice. This year, of course, the Facebook chief executive has segued from learning Mandarin to creating one of the Internet’s largest book clubs. His “A Year of Books” Facebook page, which encourages Facebook users to read one new book every two weeks and then discuss online, has already picked up more than 218,000 likes and helped to drive record sales for the first book selection (Moisés Naim’s “The End of Power.”) It’s no wonder people are already comparing Zuckerberg to Oprah and surmising that he’s done something wonderful like unlocking the future of mobile commerce for Facebook.

Please stop.

If Mark Zuckerberg is really the next Oprah, Facebook is in more trouble than you think. The fundamental problem is that if you think of yourself as the head of a media company and not as the head of a technology company, you are also thinking of yourself as the head of a company dependent on advertising, and that’s going to influence all of your strategic thinking. Instead of thinking up great new experiences for users, you start thinking up great new experiences for advertisers.

If Facebook really plans to become a successful media company, it needs to grow its audience to maximum capacity (done that!) and then find a way to (a) charge for its content (b) find deep-pocketed advertisers willing to pay or (c) figure out how to make money from online commerce. Not many people are willing to pay for Facebook quite yet (although some people do pay to promote posts), so that leaves one basic option – getting advertisers to pay.

For Facebook, that means experimenting with new ad units, trying to attract advertisers with new page formats, or loading up the News Feed with the types of middlebrow content and safe community experiences that appeal to big advertisers. Stuff like Internet book clubs, for example.

Remember — this is not the first time that Zuckerberg has told the world that he views Facebook as a media and content play rather than as a pure social networking company. Remember last year when he launched the mobile app Paper and told us that he planned to create “the best personalized newspaper in the world?” When you think like the leader of a media company instead of a technology company, apps are just new distribution channels – just more ways to get your content into the hands of users.

You can see this type of media company-inspired thinking infecting other Silicon Valley companies as well. Take Twitter, for example. The company appears to be having a permanent identity crisis: Is it a media publishing platform or a social network? Just as Facebook is experimenting with new video ad units (the latest ones are post-roll ads for the NFL and Verizon), Twitter is also busy rolling out new options for hosting videos. And other types of incremental innovations from Twitter just keep coming — everything from new page formats to new ways to view your tweet stream.

In a best case, all of this innovation leads to something such as YouTube, arguably one of the most successful examples of a tech company – Google – creating a media property. In a neutral case, you get something like Yahoo – a company with Silicon Valley DNA that often acts more like a New York media company than a West Coast technology company. And, in a worst case, you get something like AOL. (And have no doubt, it’s easy to find “Facebook is the new AOL” scenarios on the Internet.)

Which brings us back to Oprah. The No. 1 reason why Facebook is in trouble if Zuckerberg is the next Oprah is that it means that Facebook is going to have dive even deeper into bland, advertiser-safe media experiences that are all but certain to drive young, hip users away. Deep down, nobody in the critical 18-to-34 demographic really wants to use the same social network their parents (or grandparents) use. It’s the same perverse logic why some authors would rather their books not appear in the Oprah book club – it basically all but corrodes their hipster street credibility with the literary set.

What Zuckerberg needs to keep in mind is that there is a very real potential for users to leave Facebook. Already, young users appear to be abandoning Facebook, in search of online experiences that are just cooler and hipper. If your friends and family are not using the network, it’s useless to you. So once some friends begin to leave, others leave, and if enough people leave, well, you end up with a MySpace scenario.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Every now and then, Facebook actually makes the type of acquisition or strategic move that returns it to its Silicon Valley early beginnings. The deal for Oculus, for example, was brilliant. That’s because the types of people willing to strap on an Oculus Rift VR device are so vastly different from the types of people who are willing to flip on a TV to watch Oprah. Virtual reality is not yet in the mainstream and it is all but inscrutable to the types of advertisers who would want to show ads on “Oprah.”

In short, the problem with thinking like Oprah is that you start thinking in terms of audience size and advertising innovations rather than technological innovations. Every new product or offering becomes a way to build audience, a way to distribute content. Before you know it, you’re not innovating for the tech early adopter, you’re innovating for the Oprah audience.