My Guardian column this week tries to dissect the genius of Facebook:
At Davos this year, a powerful newspaper publisher beseeched Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder of the hugely successful social network Facebook, for advice on how he could build and own his community. The famously laconic Zuckerberg replied “You can’t.”
Zuckerberg went on to explain that communities already exist and the question these magnates should ask instead is how they can help them to do what they want to do. Zuckerberg’s prescription was “elegant organisation”. That is what he brought to Harvard’s community when he started Facebook, then to more colleges, high schools and companies (including half the BBC, which has 10,000 friends, says its director of global news Richard Sambrook). And now it is open to the rest of us.
I finally joined Facebook and have become obsessed with Zuckerberg’s creation. Until last autumn, one could join only with a university “edu” address. As a professor, I finally got that. Once inside, though, it felt terribly lonely; I had no friends. But since Facebook opened up, a flood of fellow old cronies have joined. So I spent a weekend morning inviting people I knew to be my Facebook friends – which would mean that we could see each other’s pages and follow each other’s actions in the service – and what floored me was the speed with which they replied. In a day I had 150 friends. What’s notable about that is not that I’m liked but that these 150 people were on Facebook within a weekend. They, too, were addicted.
What is Facebook’s secret sauce? I think it starts with identity. On the otherwise anonymous and pseudonymous internet, this is a place where real identity matters: I use my name and I associate with people whom I actually know. Soon after I started, I got invitations from strangers and asked my blog readers about the etiquette of responding. I was told that, in school, one accepts all invitations, because you are all in the same institution and it’s rather like an arms race; school is, after all, a popularity contest. But we newcomer adults already seem to be developing a rule (borrowed from the similar business site LinkedIn) that we should befriend only those we know; it is an endorsement. So we are the masters of of our identities and our communities, which establishes trust. I think internet users have been yearning for such control.
Next, Facebook introduced what it calls a newsfeed, filled with simple updates about what your friends have done on the service: one posted a photo, another a video, two more befriended the same person, four others started using a feature. This was controversial when introduced – mainly because users were surprised by the change – but now it is popular, even essential. Zuckerberg says it is not news as we know it, but it has news value: if four friends I respect start using a program, that’s good enough reason for me to look at it. As one blogger said, this isn’t the wisdom of crowds but the wisdom of my crowd. It is like the talk around the cracker barrel in a frontier general store: the protonews of my small society.
Finally, a few weeks ago, Facebook turned itself into a platform. That is, it enables anyone to create applications on top of the service. Already there are scores of aps hooking up users’ information with other services such as calendars, maps, chat, music, news, shopping, and much more. Every media, entertainment and web company needs to figure out how Facebook can help their communities. It is not just about widgetising content – the latest web 2.0 fad – but about people doing things together.
Zuckerberg’s ambition for Facebook -which he has so far refused to sell, even though it is said he has been offered more than $1bn – is nothing less than for it to become the social operating system of the web, the Google of people. If the service opens up yet more – if it becomes the twine to tie together my lives online in my blog, my work, my town, YouTube, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Amazon, eBay, Twitter, and more – then his ambition may be attainable. That would be elegant organisation indeed.