So much has been written about Facebook over the past several months that it is almost easy to forget that there are other social networking properties available to the internet community. The meteoric growth that Facebook has been enjoying has made headlines in traditional media and across the blogosphere – and this kind of attention appears to have pushed the other networking sites to the sidelines in both media exposure and new user acquisition.
But maybe that is the point. Maybe the others should be overlooked. The Facebook phenomenon could be an incarnation of the coming Darwinist weed-out Web 2.0 has yet to experience. There are currently 15 social networking sites of significant audience size in operation – and numerous smaller entities vying for users; a lot of choices for an identical purpose.
So, what is it about Facebook? Why is it growing at a faster rate than the other social networking offerings?
In posing these questions to the Facebook user universe, there was a bit of a duh factor – the key take-away being that Facebook is Web 2.0. But that answer – albeit from a biased communal source – is not enough. The question really had to be put to the business-minded community, and what better place than LinkedIn?
The LinkedIn community can be seen as an audience conquest target for Facebook’s business development strategists. As Facebook users mature and seek to expand their business network, LinkedIn is assumed to be the most logical choice. Indications that this assumption will change can be found in Facebook’s Parakey acquisition – but more on that below. In the meantime, what does the LinkedIn community think of Facebook’s popularity?
James Schneider, Jr., Creative Director for Interactive Marketing at Target – a key strategic advertiser on both MySpace and Facebook – shared his perspective. “Facebook is safe…period. Its primary guest is not comprised of the exhibitionist, the musician, the artist or some other guest who has something to ‘wow’ you with or prove,” he said.
When looking at MySpace and the expressionist methodologies employed by users there, it is easy to recall the CB Radio days of the 1970’s where everyone had call-names and an acute anonymity from which they could espouse their colorful views. The MySpace universe does not have its roots in the university culture as Facebook does. Stemming from Harvard, “Facebook is a place for intellectuals,” Mr. Schneider asserts.
But this question of popularity growth is also about utility and usage patterns. The Facebook gains are made where MySpace experiences erosion. “My employees are all high school students / early college years,” said Adeena Mignogna, Senior Engineer at GeoEye. “At first they encouraged me to join them on MySpace, which I did. Since, most have all switched over to Facebook – some have even completely closed out their MySpace accounts.”
The Facebook momentum is built at the high school level and extends into professional life – an intelligent strategy for growth in the present day and for growth among the upcoming Millennial Generation.
In a recent interview with Time, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook put their growth in perspective. “It initially was only available to people at Harvard, where I was a college. We rolled it out to all the colleges, all the high schools, then a bunch of companies could sign up. It may seem like the growth is really accelerating at a crazy rate, but it’s actually been growing and doubling about once every six months for quite a while.”
At 30 million unique users, Facebook now has 40 billion page views per month – standing as the 6th largest site in overall traffic. Additionally, it is the number one photo-sharing site on the internet. MySpace claims 191 million users, and LinkedIn has 12 million users. The comparison of Facebook with MySpace is obvious – as they are both clearly in the social networking category, although Facebook is quick to define itself as a “social utility.”
This utility definition is notable, as it ultimately opens the comparison with LinkedIn and the longer-term strategy that Facebook wishes to exert in the business-to-business space. “I love the configurable widgets,” said Ms. Mignogna. “And the fact that other profiles I have out there on Twitter and Shelfari, for example, can be incorporated easily into Facebook.”
Open source applications differentiate Facebook – not only against the consumer-facing social networking chaff, but against the B-to-B sensibilities of LinkedIn. F8, the Facebook platform, allows applications to be run exclusively from Facebook itself – and the acquisition of Parakey could bring a whole new professional dimension to the service. The Parakey acquisition has not fully been realized in the market, but the business applications Parakey embodies will have a direct impact on LinkedIn – where the professional networking service has not emerged beyond static user listings in a classified manner. Some bloggers have even begun characterizing the Parakey acquisition as an assault on Microsoft.
This curious morph from a network to a utility has an IBM/blue-chip enterprise vibe that is undeniable. It is all about usage. “For band research, I go to MySpace,” Mr. Schneider said. “To chat with old college buddies and co-workers, I go to Facebook or LinkedIn.”
Whether or not Facebook is a network or a utility, it is clear that it is a new internet bell-weather. What happens on Facebook does not stay on Facebook – and this spillover will govern the web’s next ideations.