Facebook is amongst the weirdest social site in the whole world wide web.
Facebook is not as crazy as datemypet, which pretends to be a social network for animals, not as specialised as sermo, a social network of doctors, not as business as Mechanical turk, a platform to put together small knowledge workers, not as idealistic as kiva, a marketplace to invest against poverty, not as old-simple-and-basic as craigslist, the most efficient local ad platform, not as nice as Habbo hotel, the biggest virtual world so far, (over 150 Million teenagers, probably more than Facebook within the 10-15 years old), not as focused as myfootballclub, a social network aimed at buying football clubs, not as professional as Innocentive, a platform to improve innovation for corporates, etc…
So Facebook is not all of that. Facebook is just Facebook. What is weird about Facebook is that it is complex to use (funny to realize how complicated its interface is…); its privacy is a nightmare, as says this excellent article from the NYT, with a funny proof here; Facebook even contains its own rebellion, which seems to be a long tradition (yes, 2006…); it generates desire to quit (on the 31st of may…); has huge bugs; and seems to be in a rather negative phase those days, according to top google search : “how to delete my facebook account”.
And, as of may 2010, facebook has 400 million users; the third largest country in the world, with a huge velocity of 25 million new users per month end of 2009. In October 2009, hosting Facebook was performed using 30.000 servers.
So, why is there such a hate / love story ?
Facebook is a social network. Many people think a social network as a directory of people. It is not; it is a directory of links. What is most important is not who is someone, but whom is he connected to. When I quit Facebook (I did it four times), it is not my single entry which disappears, it is also all the links I had with my friends, and all the dynamic of what happened between my friends and I (well, it almost disappear). A social network is based on the six degrees of separation theory, which says that two random people on earth can be connected only with 5 intermediate people on the chain. A social network is about connection, while the Internet at first was putting the intelligence at the end of the connection. With this respect, Facebook is not in the pure Internet philosophy. Napster is.
On most social network the focus is on the link, but the semantic on the link is very limited. In Linkedin, as an example, the number of parameters on the link for the introduction is 6 (colleague, classmate, done business together, friend, other, and unknown person…). Then, people can share sub-groups. But there are no other semantic on the link.
The path chosen by Facebook was totally different: Facebook creates the network, and by opening its API, allows anyone to virtually plug any semantic on the links. We can share a same brand, a common taste, poke each other, send virtual gifts, etc… The idea in itself is brilliant, and led to 550.000 active applications.
Now, on the downsize: first, privacy. It is not that much about my information privacy, but my interaction privacy. Whenever someone interacts on my wall, it is never clear who as seen what happened to me. A friend of mine may post a porn video on my wall, it is OK as long as only my friend and I know about it. But who else has seen this, I don’t know. In some languages, plural starts at three. Old Greek, or modern Arabic, have a singular, a dual, and a plural. This is a very clever approach of life : plural starts only when a third party witnesses the interaction between two others. By being unclear on this, Facebook can make many people nervous. A totally open society, where everybody sees and knows 100% about everybody, is inhuman.
Second, identity in context. One of the beauty of the Internet is that it allows people to have multiple identities. Why would someone be the same on a forum devoted to digital photo, on a forum about Italian operas, on a professional forum, on linkedin, on match.com, in Second Life, etc… Even though the person is the same, the context is not. On Facebook, a person is one, single, and not divisible. But on Facebook, the context can be pretty much various, because of the API opening. This lead to a contradiction. As an example, one of the biggest issues is to decide if parents and children should be friends of Facebook. In real life, interacting with your children is a done within a very strong, specific, and focussed context. Finding this context openly interleaved with other contexts can make many people nervous. Moreover, Facebook connect is propagating this constraint outside of the platform. The “Like” button, which is part of their social media plugins, and now social graph, is their most recent attempt to be “the web”
So why are people using Facebook ? The biggest population is 18-24 years old, and the biggest rate of change is in the senior population (cf. slide 8 of o’Reilly radar slideshare). Facebook is not for teen agers. When asking people about why they use Facebook, the most common answer is “retrieving old friends”.
So the conclusion is very simple from my point of view: Facebook could be used to propagate information, to retrieve old friend, but no more. Don’t use Facebook for application, rather use Facebook to propagate the information about application. Don’t use Facebook Connect, use OpenId (by the way, Facebook is a sponsoring member of OpenId).
Brands should pay more attention to discussion forums, places where the quantity of important information, which are not always exploited, is much bigger than anywhere else. Much bigger than in Facebook.
I have quitted Facebook.