How to Take Down Facebook -- Hint: It Ain't Twitter.

(aka: An Open Letter to the Next Big Social Network)

I've held off writing this post for a long time, because I couldn't quite get my head around all the issues. It wouldn't be accurate to say there's something "wrong" with Facebook, and it's not like I don't spend a shitload of time ego-whoring around on Twitter too. Let's face it: I'm completely & utterly addicted to social networks & tha Interwebs.

but: Something is Still Missing. Something is Wrong on the Internet and it's keeping me awake at night. however, I think I finally figured out what "IT" is...

Assertion #1: Facebook doesn't get Intimacy.

Facebook is full of my "friends", but it's not a great place to hang with my BEST friends (aka "BFF").

Now before you lose your shit, I know many of you are saying:

a) Dave, you're full of crap--intimacy doesn't come from a computer, or
b) Dave, you're full of crap--Facebook has *plenty* of intimacy, or
c) Dave, you're full of crap--the only thing that might kill Facebook is Twitter, which is the exact opposite of intimacy (true)

or last but not least:
d) Dave, hey WTF happened to all the crazy fonts & colors?

None of these are the right response. (altho I do promise my next blog post will once again be replete with wild-ass colors and funky fonts, just u wait).

Let me back up & explain a little bit.

Once upon a time back in 2005 when I first joined Facebook, it was a "small" social network of less than 10 millions users. But I was still rather late to the party (altho at 39 I was the oldest cool kid on my block). Since pre-2006 FB was only available to users with a college email address, I had to contact the alumni association at JHU to get a valid email address (ending in ".edu") to register on FB. This resulted in a very odd & lonely initial FB experience where I was ~10-15 years older than almost everyone in my college network (please no PedoBear jokes, kthxbai). Gradually I found a bunch of folks on Facebook that I knew--mostly VCs or early employees at FB & PayPal it turns out--and before I knew it I was hooked on poking like every other undergrad across the country. (wait: that's not what I meant... oh never mind, that's true too).

fast forward 2-3 years: Facebook cracks 100M users, then 200M, then in quick succession 300M, 400M, 500M users. And we're coming up on 600M users soon.

Holy. Fucking. Wow.

Half a BILLION users? Unbelievable. What the hell happened? Where did all these "friends" come from?!?

Well, they didn't come just from college. Facebook figured out how to open up the social graph and gather people from all walks of life--every age, every sex, every color. FB has college kids. FB has college grads. FB has high school kids, FB has parents. FB has the white-collar workforce, the blue-collar workforce, and even stay-at-home moms. Hell, FB even has GRANDparents! FB has desktop users, and FB has mobile users. And FB has them in the US, in Europe, in South America, and in SE Asia. Except for a few places like Brazil & East Asia, FB pretty much has every Internet-connected user on the planet by the short-hairs.

With an always-shiny-and-new combination of pokes, wall posts, photos, videos, apps & social games, tagging, and newsfeed distribution, Facebook has firmly fixed itself into the fundamental fabric of our friends & families. Except for Twitter & Zynga, Faceboook appears to be an unassailable, unstoppable JUGGERNAUT that absolutely DOMINATES our online experience--and will likely continue to do so for the next decade... right? Well I'm not one to bet against 500M+ fanatic users & The Unsinkable Mark Zuckerberg... but there's this one little problem:

I've got too many goddamn friends on Facebook.

yeah, that's right: i've got over 2,000 "friends" on FB, and it's fucking KILLING me. Now admittedly most normal folks don't have *that* many Facebook friends--true: i'm tremendously insecure, an only child, & a pathetic people pleaser--but regardless a lot of "normal" people have the same problem with only a few hundred friends. and i'm guessing neither they nor I want to share our most jealously-guarded deep dark secrets with *everyone* on Facebook. but they might just share it with a smaller subset.

ASSERTION #2: The stuff that's really valuable in my social graph tends to the extremes--very public (ex: Twitter) or very private (ex: email).

look, it's either Gaga, Shaq, & Glee (extremely public, better on Twitter than Facebook) or else it's only my closest buddies (u know, the evil VCs I collude with at Bin38 to fuck over YC startups).

The stuff that's meaningful--NOTE TO STARTUPS: MEANINGFUL=MONETIZABLE--that stuff is either better on Twitter, or better with a much more private & select subset of my friends on Facebook.

the very public: well here it's pretty obvious Twitter has an advantage over Facebook. the asymmetric follow model and constrained, lightweight communication make it MUCH easier to engage aspirationally with celebrities & famous people on Twitter than on Facebook. Now FB does realize this and is fighting back with Like buttons and a revved Group structure, but they may be at a disadvantage if Twitter starts to catch up with them in users/usage. Currently Facebook is a more familiar experience for larger audiences, but that may change over time. while I don't think Facebook is threatened by Twitter that much, neither is Twitter at much risk of Facebook stealing away the famous people. so Twitter probably wins on celebrities & other beautiful / rich / famous people.

the very private: now, here you'd think Facebook has the upper hand--and they do, but they're at risk of being upstaged by a more private & meaningful social network (or perhaps via some subset or abstraction layer on top of FB, if they can move quickly). this could come from Facebook modifying their existing environment to support closer subgroups, or algorithms that preference newsfeed items only to close, strong, specific connections. Or maybe it just works better with email groups & selective filtering. Or maybe it works better on an entirely different social graph that emphasizes family, close friends, and small workgroups (Yammer? LinkedIn? maybe, but I don't think so). but somewhere, there's going to be a smaller more Intimate conversation that enable a different type of sharing... lots of it.

let me explain.

maybe I only want to tell a few close buddies about that episode with the VERY BAD bean burrito. maybe your girlfriend only wants a FEW honest opinions from her CLOSE friends on whether that new dress makes her ass look fat. and maybe your frat brother only wants to tell a few buddies about the AWESOME house party he's throwing next weekend, when he's planning to invite the smoking hot new freshman sensation over with 3 of her equally sizzling BFFs. and finally, maybe I only want to share that airfare deal on a Final Four Vegas roadtrip (& the pictures!) with my set of close friends. what happens in Vegas stays in a very tight and private social graph... you hope, anyway.

now what's going on here? in each case above, there's a specific tight circle of connections I'd like to draw on, but they aren't always the same. some of them pull from long-time, frequent & familiar associations. others are based on a select, NEW set of acquaintances that meet a high bar of interest. still others are based on some shared trait or interest or activity, where I've spent time with someone before around a specific context or depth of experience... or perhaps also, a specific [social] commerce context. like something I bought, but would only share info with a small group.

which brings me to my 3rd and final point.

ASSERTION #3: Intimacy depends on Context, Connection, & Continuity... which determine Closeness... and ultimately, drive Commerce.

One might suggest that Intimacy is determined by:

  1. Shared Context (ex: basketball, school we went to, fans of Glee)
  2. [strength of] Connection (how much we like each other, how strong)
  3. Continuity (how long we've known each other, how freq/recently we connect).

For any possible social interaction, and for any potential subset of friends within your social graph, these factors determine a minimum critical level of Intimacy required to initiate & sustain the conversation around that interaction. Too little Intimacy, and the conversation stops. But with the right amount of Intimacy, the conversation literally explodes with information.

Our desire to share our experience is explicitly determined by the level of Intimacy available within (and perhaps constrained by) a social network. Ultimately, this level of available Intimacy may indeed determine the overall relevance of the social network to its participants... and perhaps, whether related commercial transactions might be relevant as well. which is something Facebook probably DOES want to make sure it gets right.

...and THAT is why Intimacy should matter so much to Facebook. it's the ONE place where they have a huge advantage over Twitter, but also the place where they are greatly at risk of someone else coming in and stealing their cheddar.

Because Facebook has chosen to emphasize growth over monetization these past few years, they have de-prioritized close, meaningful connections over broadly relevant ones with a larger group of friends. While this will help them get to a billion users faster, and increase their share of brand spend on advertising (where Facebook is really killing it these days), it may create vulnerability to another social network player who focuses on a more tightly-defined social graph with only a few, specific & meaningful Intimate relationships.

Intimate relationships that might just monetize more powerfully with 3 close friends, than they do with 300 acquaintances.

Better be careful, Zuck. maybe there's a reason Facebook should care more about Intimacy & Privacy that has absolutely nothing to do with government regulation, and everything to do with simply making more Meaning... not to mention more Money, as well.

Reprinted from Master of 500 Hats

Dave McClure likes to hang out with entrepreneurs, and occasionally help or invest in their startups if they let him. Dave has been geeking out in Silicon Valley for over twenty years, and has worked with companies such as PayPal, Mint, Founders Fund, Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Twilio, Simply Hired, O'Reilly Media, Intel, and Microsoft.

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2 Comments

  • Brendan Cooper

    This is clearly not the Facebook you're looking for. I think maybe the new Facebook Groups are what you need - invite a few people who you really do like/know and share stuff with them rather than everyone. It's the next phase of the Facebook growth: instead of bazillions of individuals or passive groups, we're now looking at new groups that are virtually small 'sub-social networks'. Anyway, take a look: http://www.facebook.com/blog.p...