Facebook's latest design and interface changes have been variously despised and applauded by its members. One of the biggest and most controversial changes was to make every user's homepage look and feel more like Twitter, which is a continuous "stream" of data that updates in real time. Loyal users of Facebook were flummoxed: why change a system that was already working perfectly well? Now we know the reason: To better serve advertisers.
Speaking at the Ad Age Digital Conference yesterday, Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg used some internal research to explain exactly why this last change is a good thing. The research relies on a type of social network analysis—a sociological science that attempts to understand the construction and dynamics of a friendship network—to examine how many people inside a typical friendship group the average Facebook user communicates with.
The figures were lower than you may expect: a user with 150 friends typically communicates reciprocally (conversation-style) with just five people, and is in direct communication with nine people in total. But if you factor in "stream communication," which implies that by reading the stream of data flowing in from your various contacts you're ephemerally "in touch" with them, then the average user communicates with 20 people. As Sandberg puts it, they "found that, in any given month, users keep up with between two times and four times more people than through more traditional communication" and the active network "leads to greater connectedness between the people in someone's network." By active network Sandberg means the portion of your friendship group that you maintain communication with—which is different to just "befriending" them—and her argument is that a stream feed actually expands that portion.
The upshot according to Sandberg is that the stream feed could be viewed as a potent advertising tool that's between two and four times more effective than other communications systems within Facebook. By using in-stream messages, an advert could access a far greater audience and do so very swiftly, thanks to the real-time nature of the feed. And that's going to be good news for the company as it tries to figure out a way to make money.
It's also good news, potentially, for Twitter which is currently trying to monetize its business. If it tweaked its UI to allow advertisers to place in-stream ads, or if a clever advertising campaign got people to Tweet and Re-Tweet (i.e. pass on, virus-style) a message, it could also lead to large audiences for adverts.
The other upshot is that the purely "friendly" nature of these social friendship networks may be about to slip into the past as they move to get access to your cash, via advertising.