When I reflect on my use of Facebook over the last seven years, it strikes me that how I used Facebook in 2004 is very different than how I use it in 2012. I remember hearing about it for the first time:
I was sitting at home in front of my computer in the months leading up to my freshman year in College. My friend Will instant messaged me with a startling proposition: “Check out this website where you can see pictures of the incoming freshman girls in your class!” For an 18 year old dude, this is the equivalent of Internet gold. I’ve never handed over my email address so willingly.
Throughout the first couple of years of college, my typical usage was:
1) Go to party
2) Meet people at parties
3) Friend people on Facebook
My network grew to about 400 “friends.” I poked, I posted, I updated. This network made sense according to the patterns of use to which I had become accustomed. By default, my photos and status updates were only shared with people from my school (with the same .edu domain).
And then something happened…
Well first, I grew up. Cheesey, I know, but people change. My priorities changed. My interests changed. My behavior changed. The friends that I spent time with changed.
Meanwhile, Facebook changed. Its focus evolved from private profiles to the Newsfeed. Tagged photos were front and center. My little cousins joined. My parents joined. My aunt joined.
And they were all playing games.
Suddenly, the content emerging from this social application was less college and parties and more cows and pigs.
But wait! Facebook! You told me to add people that I meet at parties. You didn’t tell me to add my parents and their friends and trade cows with my Aunt! You didn’t tell me to share my academic achievements! I thought I was supposed to be sharing party pictures!
So should I un-friend that girl I met at a party five years ago but haven’t spoken to since? Oh wait, you make that nearly impossible. Plus, how then will I know that she needs my help to kill a rival Mafia?!
For you, my network can only grow in one direction: bigger. We don’t meet fewer people as we get older. We meet more people! And if we know more people, our “Friends” list should grow accordingly. We don’t forget people do we? If we’ve met them, they belong in our Facebook network.
You seem to think that Facebook is the only network I’ll ever need; that instead of adding and removing people as your features and my real world networks evolve, I should just move them into smaller groups and manage a massive number of impossible-to-understand privacy settings. Because for you, my identity and how I interact with the people that make up my life are as straightforward and comprehendable as the blue in my profile.
How people build their networks in social applications is informed by the features and functionality present when they join. When I join an application whose primary function is to share my location, I’ll be sure to only connect to those people with whom I’m comfortable sharing my location. When I join a photo sharing application, I’ll likely connect to only those people with whom I’m interested in sharing photos.
On the flip side, how people use social applications is as much determined by the network of participants as it is by the features and functionality.
So our use of social applications relies on two inseparable and codependent characteristics: features suggest the network, and the network suggests a use. As features evolve, so too does the network that is relevant to the application. And as we evolve, so too does the network that is relevant to us with regards to those features.
Today, my Facebook network is really really good at one thing: Birthdays.
It was my Birthday a couple of weeks ago. From my 527 friends, I received 52 birthday wishes on Facebook. That’s 10% of my friends — more activity in one day than I saw in an entire year prior. Who are these strangers posting on my wall? I haven’t spoken to some of them in 5 years. What a wonderful treat to hear from them on my birthday.
It’s important for every company to have an ambitious goal, and for a company that insists on owning every relationship in some kind of one-dimensional version of my life, birthdays fit the bill. Congratulations Facebook, you’ve built THE KILLER BIRTHDAY APP. They own the birthday market, which, as far as I can tell, has a massive addressable audience (numbering in the billions).
I guess that just means that I’ll get my photos, location, and news elsewhere, in applications where my networks more appropriately map to the type of sharing that those content types suggest. In the meantime, I’d make one addition to the “Risk Factors” section of their S-1:
“To the extent that Birthdays go out of fashion, Facebook, as an end-user application, will cease to serve any function to anyone. It will be nothing more than a wonderful rolodex on top of which many more useful applications will be built.”
(Thanks to Alex for his help editing this post.)