2.0

The Failure of The Facebook Social Networking Model (Updated)

In Uncategorized on April 27, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Author: Marc Fawzi

Twitter: http://twitter.com/marcfawzi

Article

It sounds strange to have the word “failure” in the title when the company has over half a billion users and their IPO is probably valued in the hundreds of billions. However, the kind of failure we’re talking about is not on the surface.

In my casual experiment, which I conducted over a two year period, I added a few “almost famous” people (like DJs, artists, mathematicians, scientists, etc) each of whom have over 1000 FaceFriends in various age ranges  and demographics. I also added actual friends and relatives some of whom have over 600 Facefriends. I also watched interaction with celebrities on Facebook including those with over 10 million fans. I noticed that just like myself and the average social network user, the percentage of people these highly popular people interact with on daily basis is not anywhere near 50% or even 30% of their total Facefriends. I estimate this figure to be in the range of 5% to 15% based on a combined sample of 200 people. If more than 20% of your FaceFriends actually interact with your status feed on regular basis then you’re doing better than some celebrities.

There is nothing wrong with a platform that allows you to engage with 5%-15% of your social contacts on regular basis, including your friends and family. If you have 100 friends that’ 5-15 people that you might not be interacting with regularly if it wasn’t for Facebook.

The disturbing truth, however, is that unless you make your Wall invisible to the 85%-95% of your FaceFriends who do not bother to engage with you, you’re exposing yourself to either of these two socially undesirable scenarios:

  1. The majority of your FaceFriends are “lurkers” (i.e. they get to read what you have to say but have no desire or are too socially inhibited to engage with you) or
  2. The majority of your FaceFriends have decided to “hide” your status feed

Lurking is the epitome of being anti-social. It’s agreed by most people that it’s very weird. However, many people will actually lurk if they think there is no way to tell and most of them think so. (Note to lurkers: there is reason to believe that Facebook exposes lurkers by assigning higher precedence to them when showing the list of FaceFriends in the Friends column on the left side of the home screen. Facebook seems to do so by showing more frequently those who have clicked to view comments on your posts and those who have recently interacted with you or whom you have recently interacted with in some way, e.g. they just added you as a friend or just sent you a message, etc.)

Having your status feed be hidden by a FaceFriend is emotionally dishonest on their part. Why would anyone hide the status feed of someone they’ve added as a friend? If they’re emotionally honest they would unfriend them rather than give them the impression that they’re one of their “friends” on FaceBook while actually hiding their feed.

Another possible reason to explain “where did everyone go?” besides people being lurkers or hiding your status feed is that most of your FaceFriends may be ‘FaceDead’ (i.e. people who have accounts on Facebook but rarely use it.)

Making your Wall invisible to the 85-95% of your FaceFriends who don’t engage with you is similarly anti-social and potentially hurtful (to them.)

So what are people doing to get out of this strange situation?

I actually ended up removing the majority of my FaceFriends (the 85% who never interact *minus* family and current real life friends and a couple of worthy people I decided to exempt from the purge) and now I’m happier than I was.

(I also made sure that out of the remaining FaceFriends only those who have interacted with my status feed in the past year or so get to see my posts.)

This turns Facebook into a private chat space, more or less, which means that it has failed (at least for me and many others) in delivering on the promise implied in its design of allowing us to interact with a large number of people.

The design of the Tumblr and Twitter social “follower” model doesn’t promise that and it actually delivers on the promise of enabling people to have followers, but as it turns out that’s not what I’m looking for.

What I’m looking for is to engage with at least half of the people on my Facebook friends list on pretty much regular basis (which is a reasonable expectation.) I figured that by adding a lot of people (with mostly similar backgrounds and tastes) to my Facebook friends list I would eventually be able to do just that. But that hasn’t worked for me and I have yet to see it work for anyone (including very popular/highly sociable people.) The 5%-15% limit seems to be a fundamental limit (or property) that’s inherent in the design of Facebook’s social networking model, and to me that signifies the failure of the model.

So more experimentation coming up to try and figure out what kind of social networking model would enable people to interact with the majority of their friends (both real and online-only friends) on regular basis. Something that requires people to interact with a good percentage of their contacts, not lurk, hide their status feed or ultimately fall into small groups.

I think such an optimistic model is not only possible but essential.

However, it’s obvious that we’ll have to think very differently about how social networking is done online.

Update:

To complicate things further, a new feature in Facebook makes it so that you will not see the status feed of people that you haven’t interacted with in a while unless you change the default setting, which means that they’ve taken the problem elaborated upon in this article (the fact that 85-95% of the total number of our “FaceFriends” on Facebook rarely interact with us if ever), which is a general problem that affects everyone from extreme loners to celebrities with tens of thousands of fans, and they’ve dug in deeper and made that into a feature to cover up the basic issue, which is that Facebook has failed in enabling people to engage with a larger audience.

This supports the well-hidden truth that Facebook is just a fancy chat room with enough smoke and mirrors to give us the impression (but not the reality) of having a large social circle.

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