What Best Explains the Success of Facebook?

What Best Explains the Success of Facebook?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007; Posted: 4:46 AM
– by John Kirriemuir

Facebook has
been getting a lot of UK press of late, from consideration of how much
it is worth, to privacy issues, universities
getting annoyed
at students using it to criticize staff, being censored
by organizations frightened of it, and the musings of BBC journalists
about whether people
are too “old” to Facebook

What makes Facebook such an attraction? Some theories… 

 

1:
Collecting

It’s like Top Trumps
and Pokemon and stamp collecting, in that it taps into the basic psyche
of collecting things. As the collection of "Friends" grows, so it is
like having a larger stamp collection, with an increasing feeling of
achievement.

"My stamp collection contains 10 stamps" is
nothing. "My stamp collection contains 2,000 stamps" perhaps gives a
feeling of achievement, a tangible result and evidence of work and
persistence.

To
give your collection a bit more personalization, you can optionally
agree with your friends how you met and add on other bits of
information, write on their profile wall, and so on. So you aren’t just
remembering and "collecting" friends, but collecting relationships
between people. (That sounds a bit woolly – just play with Facebook and
it’ll make more sense).

2:
Not invited to the party

Facebook also digs away at the insecurities in people. "I have one
friend" probably makes some people feel a bit insecure and Billy no-mates.
In the deeply insecure, this may be amplified by the lie-awake-at-night
worry that your peers can see your profile on Facebook, and while they
may have 50, 100, 200 friends they will mockingly see that you have a
pathetically small number, confirming your worst fears about the low
opinion they have probably held of you over all those years etc.

Yes,
Facebook could cause a lot of angst to the paranoid amongst us ;-)


3: Twitching curtains

"Curiosity" –
and its cousin "nosiness" – are basic cognitive attributes. Anyone who
says they are never nosey or never curious as to what their neighbours
or work colleagues are up to is probably fibbing. Having lived in
several small communities, where gossip is an alternative currency, the
general rule seems to be "most residents discuss most other residents".
Though, in many ways, this is preferable to the anonymity of the city,
where people often live next door to dead people for weeks or
months at a time without realising.

Facebook
is up-front about letting you keep an eye on what your friends are up
to. There’s a status box. You type in – if you want – what you are
doing. There’s another page where the most recent updated status of
your friends are listed; here’s a screenshot of a good example.
Currently, of my peers, Dan is off to Paris, Tom has just completed a
half-marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes, David in Lewis is bottling his
home-made wine, and Jenny has finally bought a house. Utterly
meaningless to you (unless you are my evil twin or stalker), but of
interest to me. The same way that your friends are of no interest to me
but of much interest to you.


4: People like us

It’s
a social network for what my cousin calls "the deadwood" – basically,
everyone over 30. The demographics for new users registering show
an accelerating rise in people from 35 onwards signing up (this slide
from an interesting bundle of Facebook
stats slides
):


I’m
38. When I use Facebook I don’t occasionally look at a person’s profile
and think, with total dismay, "I’m old enough to be your father."
That’s happened to me in MySpace. And that’s partially why I’ve given
up on Bebo, as it’s not far off the point of thinking "I’m old enough
to be your grandfather." How depressing would that be?

No,
there is a generational thing there, and I’m more comfortable with
peers who are very roughly within my age range. The birthday/age
feature on Facebook tells me the youngest friend I have is 25 (four of
them) and the oldest is 74. If you are too young to remember life under
Thatcher – and worryingly, this year’s University intake will contain
that generation – then we probably aren’t going to be discussing
politics anyway. And I’m not going to turn into one of the dull people
who turn up at every village meeting and start their sentences with "In
my day…". No, 25 to 74 is fine.


5: Autobiography

Once
you’ve linked up with a few people, then Facebook creates a "Social
Timeline." This shows when and who and why you ended up meeting with
Facebook people. As an aide memoire, this has been unexpectedly
interesting, showing that I did a heck of a lot of networking (that led
to people I’m still in touch with) at certain jobs, but not at others.
It also shows that for the couple of years after I went self-employed,
I did hardly any networking as I was busy being a part-time tourist.
(That’s what happens when you live between two airports which
host several budget airlines, and you don’t have to book time off
work). 

6: Expansion
is quick, easy and free

I
like WordPress, as a blogging and website development tool, as plug-ins
are being created all the time to add functionality. A bit of FTPing,
and a variable amount of fiddling, and often – though not always –
another dimension has been added to a website or blog.

However,
Facebook is simpler. 

 

Adding new
functionality is done within Facebook – no FTPing, or messing about
with files or directories. It takes literally seconds, which means that
an application of interest can be very quickly experimented with.
Several times I’ve installed, played with, and uninstalled applications
in under 2 minutes. Therefore, it appeals to people who like to tinker
and experiment, but don’t have the time, inclination, knowledge,
attention span or geekiness to mess about with anything technical.

So
what of rival services? Will Facebook knock ’em out of the market
place? One in particular is possibly doomed in the long-term: Friends
Reunited.

Friends
Reunited: Web 1.1 (and that’s generous)
 

The
main competitor to Facebook in the UK is Friends Reunited (FR).
This was sold by the couple who set it up from scratch less than 18
months ago (great move and perfect timing), to ITV for a minimum of
£120M (seriously bad purchase). I wonder when the people who run ITV
had a good look at Facebook – guess that was a really bad day in the
office.

FR
does has the advantage of being UK-oriented; the terminology and
instruction on the website are geared towards UK schools and academia.
You can do searches for people just in the UK and Ireland. There are
already a fair few people signed up to it (39 out of the 103 students
in my school year) and paying their annual fee. It’s also branched out
into associated ancestry services (Genes Reunited). And, unlike
services such as Facebook, FR doesn’t suffer the bane of garish ads:

 

However,
there are serious problems with Friends Reunited. I’ve just gone back
to it for the first time in a while and have literally gasped at the
awfulness of it. I’d be almost embarassed if someone saw me using this
website. Here are five of the problems FR has:

  1. Many
    of the accounts on FR are years old and dead. There’s no way of telling
    which are dead and which are still being used and feeding through to a
    working email account.
  2. Get this – you have to sign up and
    pay money just to make contact with someone. On Facebook you can link
    up and send messages to other people. On FR, it’s a £7.50 subscription.
    I can’t imagine many – possibly any – people signing up to FR without
    having a good go on the (free) Facebook service first.
  3. FR looks AWFUL. Not in a vile MySpace way, but
    in a "My first attempt at HTML" way. Facebook is slick and so 2007.
    Friends Reunited is clunky and basic, so 1997. There
    is no way any self-respecting net user is going to evangelise about FR.
    "Come join me on this noddy, clunky, basic website."
  4. FR
    doesn’t allow you to add applications and extra functionality, wheras
    Facebook does. With FR, you can add pictures, basic notes, messages
    such as you’ve passed your driving test and, erm, um, little else.
  5. FR is grindingly slow. What is it running on, a ZX81?

The
only real advantage that FR has over Facebook is the UK-oriented
methods of searching and listing people and places. But that’s it. If
the search functionality improved in Facebook, then I can’t see a
reason to use Friends Reunited. It would be interesting to follow the
graphs of how many (UK) users they had signed up over the next few
months and years.

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