Friday, February 05, 2010

Facebook & Openness :: Expanding Small-Worlds & a Usability Arms Race?

While creating documents for the startup, I've been thinking about platform creation. Specifically, how sites like MySpace and Facebook create communication platforms that use social networks. While MySpace is moving towards being a social portal based on entertainment content, Facebook is all about connecting its vast user network. In my opinion, Facebook starts with replicating one's social network and focuses on connecting to people within one's past and present, creating "small-world" networks. A small-world network is where most connections are just a few steps away, i.e., a friend of a friend.

Network Size
On Facebook, the average number of size of networks is 120, according to Cameron Marlow [2009, Economist], a Facebook sociologist, and people tend to have frequent interactions with a small core of friends. So, for the average user::
  • Females:: Comments on 10 friends' posts and engages 6 friends in 2-way communications.
  • Males:: Comment on 7 friends' posts and engages 4 friends in 2-way communications.
The über-user with 500 friends has only slightly higher numbers::
  • Females:: Comments on 26 friends' posts and engages 17 friends in 2-way communications.
  • Males:: Comment on 16 friends' posts and engages 10 friends in 2-way communications.
While not surprising, it looks as if people primarily communicate with Facebook with their BFFs. What would be interesting is seeing to what degree just reading/viewing the content of those in one's network follows the same pattern. I would think so, but wonder in which circumstances do people read the content, but not communicate, with users in their networks.

Affinity Networks
In my opinion, Facebook doesn't really encourage expanding one's network beyond current small-world of past and present friends and friends-of-friends. Another configuration is affinity networks, based on shared interests, which MySpace is moving towards. While affinity networks can be created on Facebook, e.g., users signing up for groups or joining fan pages, I see Facebook use as primarily focused on relationships between individuals, not seeking engagement from and interaction with others based on shared interests in content.

The Open Social Graph
Online, the social graph is a mapping of our everyone we know and how we're connected. An open social graph decentralizes how we identify ourselves, giving the user more control over our social networks. Brad Fitzpatrick discussed the problem of social graph a few years back. He has a slide presentation that details his ideas. Here's a diagram of how our various identities across sites complicates our social graph. "Claim" linkages turn into "is" linkages with verification. Once all claims are verified, the linkages can be completed across networks on different sites, assuming you want to be a "friend" with someone on every site.

In the above network, Brad and Whitaker are LiveJournal friends, but have not linked through Vox or MySpace {Hey, this was from summer of 2007}. Decentralizing our social information would allow the aggregation of our networks that aren't beholden to a single site.

Social Network Aggregation
Social network aggregation is an outflow of these ideas with third-party sites allowing uses to manage their networks on their sites. But, doesn't this threaten how sites like Facebook make money. I've been reading how Facebook has been able to monetize its business model, leveraging its size and data to sell adspace for contextual ads. But, Facebook is allowing more and more openness, allowing content on the site to be pushed to other sites.  I don't think they have a choice. They need to ensure that they don't wall themselves off from users, even if it means that some users may not be going on to the Facebook site, ostensibly reducing their metrics, but not necessarily data capture.

Nevertheless, this begs the question of what happens if users can have the features of Facebook with a better user experience? 

Social network aggregator sites like HootSuite are trying to move in that direction, although the usability and functionality is limited. It should be noted that there's nothing to prevent Facebook from doing what the social aggregators are doing and we're seeing a bit of this with Facebook and Twitter. Given that user content on social network sites are just sets of databases of usernames, date/time, locations, text, images, Tweets, status updates, comments, etc., doesn't this set up a battle for the best user experience, a usability arms race? I certainly hope so.

Twitterversion:: Will more openness by #Facebook set the stage for a usability arms race? @Prof_K

Song:: Groove Armada-"My Friend"

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