Facebook’s Size Isn’t the Point

Newsweek just published a story on the state of Facebook now that the social networking platform has reached the milestone of its fifth birthday.  They seem critical of Facebook for not yet turning a profit, in spite of the fact that a large number of businesses aren’t profitable in their first few years (there seems to be a digital double-standard).

The gist of the article is encapsulated by Fred Stutzman of the University of North Carolina who identifies Facebook’s major challenge thusly: “”I think the main danger is that the social network is getting too big. […] It’s something that’s going to happen soon to Facebook—and so their business team has to worry about designing products and services that keep people interested.” Elsewhere in the article, they discuss the dangers of “context collapse” which is apparently the phenomena when too many people start using a platform and it drives some of them off.

I tend to disagree with their conclusions; 1)  Facebook’s size is irrelevant, 2) the ‘open’ approach Facebook has taken means they don’t have to worry about keeping people interested, and 3) Facebook has already proven resistant to “context collapse.”

First, Jeff Jarvis noted that size doesn’t matter in a blog post from a few years ago.  As he put it, what is really important is “…relevance, credibility, and attraction.”  That analysis still holds up today.

People don’t use Facebook because it’s “cool” in the same way they don’t use roads because they’re “cool.”  (With the millions of niches out there, does  “cool” even exist anymore?  I doubt it).  They’re simply the infrastructure that allows people to get their needs met.  People use Facebook because it’s highly functional and meets the requirements outlined by Jarvis:

  • It’s relevant because it allows people to access and expand their pre-existing circles of friends and family.
  • It’s credible because Facebook respects the opinions of its users and responds to their demands.  (Building that credibility will eventually mean that users will be much more comfortable with allowing Facebook access to their personal data because they’ve proven it won’t be abused).
  • It’s attractive because, despite how many total Facebook users there are, people still have extensive control over their networks and who they’re accessible to.

Second, Facebook allows open access to its interface so users can develop their own applications.  That crowdsourcing effectively ensures that interesting and enticing new innovations will be developed because they’re designed by the users for the users.  Facebook can keep its eyes on the prize and not have to worry about developing apps to capitalize on every pirate, zombie or mob-related meme because they allow others to make money filling those voids.

Third, Facebook’s audience has already been skewing older for a few years now.  That should mean young people are fleeing in droves as their parents and employers sign up, right?  Wrong.  It just means that more people are making use of the various privacy filters on their profiles.  That flexibility is the core of Facebook’s model for success.

The only reason Facebook’s size might become an issue is if they’re tempted by the opportunity to sell out and make some big short-term cash (by ignoring the wishes of its users and sell out by violating their privacy, compromising usability for some sort of obtrusive advertising scheme, or slash their staffing and stop responding to user needs).

There might be cause for alarm if they ever become a publicly-traded company (where it becomes hard to ignore the demands of shareholders), but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Fortunately Facebook has demonstrated repeatedly that they understand their audience and how important it is to keep them happy (ie how they reacted to the backlash against their Beacon advertising program).  That’s far more important than size or coolness.

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