December 3, 2007

Facebook and the value of context

Some thoughts on Facebook and the value of context in social networks. Please add your thoughts and point to any glaring omissions. Thanks.

In the discussions about Facebook's Beacon advertising system specifically and Facebook in general there are sometimes a lack of understanding why people share personal and sometimes private information on Facebook. And given that some information is shared openly, why the Beacon type of sharing is opposed.

Facebook started out as a closed system, a walled garden if you want. Members could only see people in their own network, basically the university or college you attended, and people they knew. That effectively erected walls and created context. The important point, I believe, is that what you wrote was not open for everyone to read. The result was fertile ground for semi-public personal communications to flourish. This style of communication has been "inherited" by members joining Facebook in the last year.

In the last year Facebook, by making design changes and growing, has moved away from its relatively closed system. Two examples being the change from relatively small networks, the size of a school, to networks with one million members (e.g. the Sweden network) and opening the site to Google and other search engines. In effect Facebook has shifted from giving a relatively high degree of privacy protection, in a social network context, to giving greater leeway to digital voyeurism. (And this is not taking the Beacon power grab into account.) I don't believe that we have yet seen the changes in social behavior, e.g. less open communication in public areas of Facebook, that will likely follow these changes.

I lean towards believing these changes are bad in the longer term both for Facebook and its members. Opening the site will make the part of the social graph Facebook can see larger, as the number of nodes (people) and connections (friendships) grow in relation to members on Facebook. However, I don't believe it is the number of nodes and connections that is the key value driver for social networks. Rather I believe it is the strength of the connections and the activity between nodes that are driving long-term value for members.

A transparent system with many participants will likely reduce the semi-public activity between members. Basically there are things you will not say and things you will not do in an open, public place, but would do in a closed group or a Friday night in a bar. If certain high-value (because they are fun, interesting or something else) activities become rarer, Facebook could be less interesting even if the number of members grow.

That doesn't mean Facebook will disappear, it won't, but it highlights the opportunity for other social networks to satisfy specific needs for certain people better than Facebook.

1 comment:

Henrik Ahlen said...

Very smart analysis. It is strange that so many Facebook users do not understand the difference between belonging to a nation-wide network like Sweden and to a local schol network, or not to any network at all.

Not to mention that 99% of all Facebook users have not taken the trouble to learn to set their own privacy settings according to their own taste. Instead they complain that Facebook is "giving away their private information"!

And when will people stop measuring popularity by the number of "friends" connected on sies like Facebook and realisse that they should ignor friend requests from peope they do not know personally.

Even Carl Bildt has not understood this, he recently in an interview stated that he thought Facebook was a bit tiresome, since he had around 4000 "friends" there...