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"The Facebook Effect"

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Cisco Employee

I recently finished reading "The Facebook Effect" by David Kirkpatrick.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it's a chronicle of the history of Facebook along with commentary on how it has changed the way people interact and the global impact it has had.  It's not quite the sex, drugs, and deception that the recent movie and Oscar nominee for best picture, "The Social Network", would lead you to believe (that was based on "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich, which apparently takes some artistic flexibility and never interviewed a single person from Facebook) - but what's still striking is the plain fact that something born in the dorms of Harvard University seven years ago has grown not only into a company that recently reported advertising revenue of $1.5B but one that continues to push the bleeding edge of social software and redfine the very nature of human interaction.

I wanted to call out some of the key takeaways I had from the book because the ubiquity of Facebook has made it in many ways reference point for all things social software related.

  • Keep it simple. From day one, Mark Zuckerberg wanted to make sure that Facebook's UI was clean, intuitive, and free from distraction.  The UI should not hinder you in finding what you what and doing what you need to do.  It was quite a contrast to fellow competitor, MySpace, early on - where some profile pages could give you seizures with all the spinning graphics and crazy colors- quite a struggle to even read.  He knew that the easier it was to use the more it would be used.  A few years back I came across a book that highlighted the top websites of 1996.  And one of the things that struck me was just how pure and unpolluted everything was.  Part of that was because some of the technology that is rampant today, like Flash, was still in its very nascent days.  But Facebook stayed strong to their matra of keeping the site uncluttered.  And that's what people want.  And as a side note - Zuckerberg was always against banner ads because they were akin to advertisements on television - they disrupted what you were doing.  That's why the ads on Facebook are tailored to you and really something that adds to the experience rather than disrupt it. 


  • "Social Graph" is key.  I was surprised to learn that Zuckerberg actually coined the term "social graph" - which as you may know, isn't actually a graph, but rather "the web of relationships articulated insdie Facebook as the result of users connecting with their friends".  That term has transcended Facebook and used quite often when discussing social software.  On Facebook it comes into play in things like tagging photos (side note - the tagging of people in photos was also a concept created by Facebook) - because I can tag people within my group of connections and that will create a news feed event that will go out to others and really create the socialization of photos - generating "likes", generating comments, etc.  Zuckerberg always kept in mind how the social graph could be applied to other activities to further pull in users and make them more valuable.  It's really the key to any social site and why even with enterprise social software the concept of "connections" exists.


  • Privacy is VERY important to users.  Even though many seem to make their life an open book on social networking sites, it seems likes every few months we see a story about Facebook or another social site having to back-pedal thanks to site updates that raise privacy or other concerns.  Facebook has certainly endured a bumpy road.  My favorite example in the book was the roll out of Facebook Beacon in 2007.  Beacon basically took user activity from external sites and posted the updates to your newsfeed (and newsfeed of others).  In one instance, a man had purchased a diamond ring on Overstock.com as a Christmas gift for his wife, which was then promptly posted to the newsfeeds - that he purchased a diamond ring showing he got 51% off.  Of course his wife contacted him immediate to ask who the ring was for and also saw the price.  Needless to say, that service was pulled back to be rethought shortly after it rolled out.

  • Use the power of crowdsourcing.  One of the more impressive things that Facebook created was their approach towards making Facebook available in multiple languages.  Facebook grew incredibly fast and quickly spread beyond the US - still only in English.  There was an early need to translate Facebook into a number of languages.  Facebook created the list of all the words that needed to be translated and then used the power of the masses by turning the ability to translate over to the actual users.  This helped Facebook quickly (and inexpensively) move from just English to 75+ languages.  This approach allows Facebook to turn up new languages in a very painless way.  Another example of how Facebook used the power of their own users - after backlash by the users over a terms & conditions change, Facebook allowed the users the ability to adjust the language to make it more acceptable to their needs.  The end result of that was the updated T&C's was much more well received and exactly what the users wanted - because they were the ones who helped create it.

  • The user isn't always right! A number of the site redesigns and features that were added to Facebook (like the newsfeed) were initially met by vehement backlash.  While in some cases, like with Beacon mentioned above, the users had valid points.  But with others - they were such radical changes that even though the very bright think-tank at Facebook understood the value and the vision - it wasn't readily evident to the end user.  Lesson here is that you should not bend everytime a customer complains about something - defend your product and help them understand the vision. 

  • Don't make users hunt for what they want.  Before the advent of the now ubuquitous newsfeed, if I wanted to see more information about one of my "friends", I would have to forcibly navigate to their profile page - and multiply that out by the number of friends I wanted to look at.  Very inefficient.  The newsfeed changed all that.  It knew what/who I wanted to know about by virtue of my social graph so Facebook used that information to create an aggregated list of updates that were presented in the newsfeed.  This brought info to the users.  No longer did they need to hunt.  This increased the "stickyness" of the site - increasing the amount of time users spent each visit as well as the number of visits.  Being a user of Cisco Quad, I'm a member of about 30 communities and I'm "connected" to about 100 people.  Thanks to the aggregated activity stream, I'm able to see what updates have occured without having to proactively look into each community and each user.

  • The walls of transparency are being lifted.  I know oftentimes people struggle with how they should balance their personal online identity with their professional one.  Mark Zuckerberg's perspective is that they should be one in the same.  Because we are seeing more and more transparency into the lives of everyone online, there's nowhere to hide anymore.  So why fight it?  It's an interesting perspective.  The main point though is that this has the potential to make people more genuine because you get to see who they really are.

I definitely recommend the book because I think it can appeal to a variety of audiences - those interested simply in the history of Facebook, those interested in social software / social media, those interested in business - because not only did Facebook play all the right cards from a software perspective, but the way they handled their investors, advertisers, etc. was nothing short of perfection.

Enjoy!

4 Comments
Beginner

Great summary - all interesting observations.  The one most intriguing to me is "The walls of transparency."

The idea that there is no place to hide and people's lives are more visible to others really challenges those who compartmentalize their lives into incongruous "faces" - their public face vs. their private face and all the various permutations of those.  For in addition to transparency from our own actions on-line, our friends, colleagues, and family - past and present - can also relate experiences that reveal the real "us" in a very public forum.  They will also see and easily recognize incongruities between our "faces."

So, this transparency may cause many to become more "genuine" - it may also cause some to become better actors and actresses.

It also provides others with the means to relate what they know about us and influence our reputation  - the hope is all are honest and not influenced by ulterior motives.

Cisco Employee

Good point - and the way Zuckerberg would reply is that even if you try to be a good actor, it's your social map that will "out" you.  One example given was someone who tries to portray having a straight and narrow life, but their online "friends" make comments that cause you to question how genuine that person is being.  Plus - being tagged in photos or notes by others are quick way to be implicated.  So even if you are a good actor, people will see the type of people with whom you associate as well as content linked to you that you may not want shown.  In Facebook, if I'm you're friend, I can tag you to any picture and it'll show up immediately in your friends' newsfeed.  Gratned you have the ability to remove that tag - but since it already crossed the newsfeed it's often too late.  The damage is done.  So bottomline, yes, it may cause people to try to become better actors, but it will also become increasingly more difficult because their identity is not just how they portray themselves - it's all the other indirect activity that can paint a clear picture too what someone is like.

Beginner

The time tested adage "Choose your friends wisely" is still valuable advice today.

Beginner

The whole "walls of transparency" notion is one I would have the hardest philosophical issue with- at least with some things. In an era of political correctness and exagerated notions of intolerance, I do not think it is practical or wise to be transparent between your professonal life and public life - but with some granular controls, perhaps that can be managed. For instance, do you really want to know your religious preference (atheist, agnostic, which denomination, etc), political persuasion (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, etc), sexual orientation, and such. That brings so many connotations to it and the potential for being misinterpreted or stereotyped. So in the abstract I like the concept, but in practice, can it be balanced with good privacy controls?

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