Facebook, It’s like Instagram for Birthdays

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.)

  • Libby L.

    New feature for facebook: A friend eliminator. It would make facebook way more useful. It could eliminate the people I havent talked to EVER, or maybe just in the last 5 years. I don’t want to see their posts. I don’t even care about their birthdays. Well actually, when facebook tells me its their birthday and I don’t know who they are, I use that as an opportunity to unfriend them. So maybe I do care about their birthdays, in a sense. 

    One thing is for sure, I don’t use facebook for news. I use news.me. 

    Also, thanks Alex, for helping Jake edit his post. 

  • Ccimma

    HA HA, I intentionally posted my wrong Birthdate! 

    • http://twitter.com/alexmr Alex Rosen

      my friend does this too just to see how many people say happy birthday incorrectly. it’s always a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/jc_harland James Harland

    Was referred to your post by @sugdaddy:twitter after a discussion we had on ”one network rules them all” versus “uprising of the niche network”.

    Firstly, great post.  And I largely agree with the premise.The thing that it made me think, that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before is the divergent priorities from the point of view of the network itself versus the user.Basically, a network is hugely incentivized to get big to take advantage of network effects, so for everyone on facebook to have LOADS of friends.  In some networks (LinkedIn in my mind being the key one) that aligns with the needs that the user has of the network.But as your friend points out, if the point of the network is actually interacting with my actual friends (Friends in Real Life) smaller is better, and keeping that list of friends pretty small is in my interest to make sure it stays interesting and engagement stays high (high “signal to noise”)Two posts that are related and very well thought out are here from Brad Feld this weekend, and here from Andrew Parker (Principle at Spark Capital) from a while back.Still not sure where I come out on this overall…

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      Totally, networks are incentivized to grow larger, but it’s that growth that ends up altering the value that they once delivered. Wrote a post on this a few months ago, would be great to hear your thoughts on it: http://www.jakelevine.me/blog/2011/08/the-social-web-is-splintering-ftw/

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  • http://nerdfiles.net/ Aharon Alexander

    Wow. Comment text is too small.

    Cannot comment.

    • mhud

      I’m glad to see you were able to work through it, and you managed to comment.

      • http://nerdfiles.net/ Aharon Alexander


        Look, that isn’t the comment I wanted to make. But the comment I want to make may spark discussion. I cannot read any of these comments because their text size unreadably small, and, y’know, I’m frankly sick of overlooking this kind of thing now. I can use Stylish or mod the design, but in principle that’s dirty and upsetting anyway.

        Browser default is 16px/pt for a reason.

        I’m sorry. But I have to take a stand, even if it be it one post at a time.

  • http://www.dannyaranda.com/ Danny Aranda

    I agree – the value of Facebook’s network has evolved.  Your games and birthday example is good because it highlights that maybe the value has shifted off Facebook’s actual website or app.  Hence their moves towards “seamless sharing.”

    They’ve consistently emphasized that the Facbeook graph is about people you know.  ”Everyone I’ve ever met” is most likely not the right graph across all applications – but there are overlays and it’s already proving out to be a good place to start (fb connect)

    For instance, that girl you met at a party 5 years ago might be a great photographer now, possibly the only professional photographer you’ve ever met.  You join Instagram, you follow her, you now have access to her network of great photographers – perfect for Instagram.
    So – not one network to rule them all – maybe one network to seed them all.

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      You nailed it, right on.

      • http://www.twitter.com/sugdaddy Michael Shafrir

        “One network to seed them all…”

        Hmm, perhaps that is where my thinking is moving.

      • Guest

        A tailored, existing sample to pick and choose from the people you are comfortable sharing app specific functions with. Starting from scratch usually blows. 

        On the other hand, we get back to the same problem when a good Facebook friend requests an Instagram friendship and their photo’s aren’t so good.

  • http://kanyi.tumblr.com Kanyi Maqubela

    This is fantastic Jake.

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  • daZ

    The saddest part is seeing birthday posts on dead friend’s wall. 

  • http://www.affenstunde.com/ James Barnes

    Sir, I fear your biting satire has caused me to destroy the screen of my laptop with nose coffee expectorant.

    More of this kind of thing please.

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      best comment ever

  • Zzz

    best part is – my birthday on facebook is fake so if someone wishes me happy birthday on my facebook birthday they aren’t really my friend

  • Deboraweb

    As one of the aunts who is also a web designer by trade, I enjoy reading your perspective on FB. I try to be clandestine in there when it comes to the younger generations but, hey, without FB I would only know your opinions on Thanksgiving. Of course I know your birthday WITHOUT FB because I held you when you were just weeks old and I remember these things. I digress- it is a fabulous birthday app to be sure but it connects generations like no other tool. Miss ya and happy birthday doll! Cousin Deb

    • http://www.jakelevine.me jakelevine

      Totally agree! Great point. I guess I’m just suggesting that that is not what I “hired” Facebook to do. It still adds value, just a different value now then it did 5 years ago, and this new value suggests a different set of “friends.”

  • http://watchavideo.net/ watch a video

    I think facebook is doing well for itself. I just hope they build a ‘circles’ like feature. Facebook groups are not that intuitive.

  • http://twitter.com/ThibautDavoult Thibaut Davoult

    Grouping friends on Facebook is a bit of a hassle but once it’s done it improves the experience greatly. Before it was implemented, I would’ve fully agreed on that post. Now, I have put 12 people in my “closest friends” list and share most of my stuff there, and it’s the first feed I check when I want to know how my friends are doing. Then if I’m bored/have time, I move on to the 500 other friends listed elsewhere.
    It’s still a very potent tool to keep in touch with people you really know (or knew) but who you don’t have the opportunity to see anymore. To stay in the “college and growing up” analogy, our freshman years were drinking and partying and Facebook was great for that, now it’s keeping in touch with the ones who matter and who went on to study abroad or took jobs in cities that are far away.
    That said, I really don’t think it’s perfect, but I’m hopeful for great changes in 2012. If they don’t come, g+ will take over anyway.
    As for intimacy and people who matter, Path does a great job at it.

  • http://khurtwilliams.com/ Khürt L. Williams

    On a monthly basis I interact with about five of my 250 Facebook “friends”.  Unfortunately Facebook is the only place I can share photos with my far flung family.