Facebook's Social Pivot

With Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, it can be hard to tell the difference between a pivot and an iteration. The 11th in our series.

For all his real-life social awkwardness, Mark Zuckerberg has been enamored with the intersection of software and social connections stretching back at least to his freshmen year at Harvard. One early application, called Coursematch, let students find out who else was enrolled in their classes. Another parsed the campus newspaper to locate people cited in its pages and link them through different articles.

His biggest splash came with Facemash, which chose for its inspiration Hot or Not, inviting students to upload pictures for peers to rate. Zuckerberg raided an online cache of Harvard student I.D. photos, posted them side by side, invited users to vote on whom was better looking and tabulated the results into a top-10 list for each campus house. Facemash proved popular and controversial, with the administration charging him with violating students' privacy. (He got off with a warning.) Then came thefacebook, his run in with the Winklevii, and the rest, as they say, is geek history.

While Zuckerberg prefers the word "iterate" to describe the bubbling change that has characterized Facebook since its inception, there have been several pivots along the way. The first involved who could join the network. When Thefacebook.com debuted on the evening of Feb. 4, 2004, a Harvard email address was required for registration. Within 24 hours more than 1,200 students registered. Five days later the Harvard Crimson published a story on Thefacebook.com and by the end of the month three-quarters of the undergraduate population--about 7,000 students--had signed up.

Zuckerberg once told me he was amazed it took off so quickly. He had "a sense that the type of dynamics we were tapping into were pretty universal," but he was surprised his implementation “was so efficient at doing it." Soon other schools asked whether Thefacebook.com would launch outside of Harvard, and he spread it to Yale, Stanford, and Columbia.

Encouraged by the swift adoption, over the course of the semester he launched TheFacebook at 25 more schools. He and his roommates tacked up on their walls pictures of S-curves representing the adoption rates on various campuses. The bigger the school, the longer it took to arrive at full inflection. At Cornell a couple of weeks passed before exponential growth kicked in. As with smaller schools, however, eventually a critical mass was achieved; then there arose the social expectation that everyone had to be on it. Since students communicate with those attending other colleges there was significant pent-up demand for Thefacebook.com elsewhere, with campus newspapers trumpeting its arrival. This drove the site through the early signup phase, when the landscape was particularly barren and there was little utility for early adopters.

If Thefacebook.com had stayed within the safe confines of colleges it would have probably ended up a nice, niche business. But it expanded to high schools in September 2005 and then to big companies like Apple. It was this throwing open the doors to anyone that heralded Facebook’s rise as the largest social network on the planet.

There have been other pivots amidst all the iteration. The introduction of the Newsfeed, which quickly became the focal point for Facebook, is probably more of an iteration. Facebook’s transformation from a user-growth engine into a mature platform that other companies could base their businesses on was a pivot--a key one at that. And down the road Facebook’s mobile strategy could provide fodder for pivoting.

Picture, if you will, a Friday night in the near future--5, maybe 10 years from now. You head to a bar wearing your Google augmented reality glasses (with the Prada frames) equipped with speech recognition software. You’re already logged into Facebook because that’s the default setting and who bothers to change this? You scan the room and because of Facebook’s vast facial recognition database--and the fact that almost everyone on the planet has a Facebook account—you are able to identify every person in the room, and how they relate to you and your social graph.

Is this a pivot or an iteration? I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it’s not far off. The real question is whether or not the location-aware integrated social network of the future will make future Mark Zuckerbergs, or anyone else, less socially awkward. Sarah Lacy, founder of PandoDaily, served up a deliciously insightful observation about the people behind Facebook, Twitter, indeed the entire web in an e-book on the Facebook IPO that we worked on together. "The irony of the social media era," she wrote, is that "it was created by the world's least social people." 

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg

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7 Comments

  • Trevor Lohrbeer

    Please let's not dilute what the word "pivot" means within the startup context. Expanding into a new market (e.g. others schools, the general population) is not a pivot. This is the classic bowling pin strategy from Crossing the Chasm, where you tackle a niche market, and then expand into follow-on markets.

    A pivot requires a fundamental re-thinking of the business, based on learning you acquired with your current product or service. Usually this entails a completely different product, a different business model, and occasionally, a different market. Companies pivot when their current business model is failing, rarely when it is succeeding. 
    Facebook has been a social network from day one. They are a prime example of a company that has iterated well, but has never pivoted. They haven't yet needed to; they had a successful model from the start, as this article illustrates.For for details on pivoting, check out Eric Ries's article Pivot, Don't Jump to a New Vision at  http://www.startuplessonslearn...

  • crybaby

    Iteration is about functionality.  Pivot refers specifically to changing fundamental assumptions around the business model.

  • Manish K Gupta

    This is for Farah,
    "The world's most social networks were created by least social people. I completely agree that this is cent percent true but one also needs to keep in mind that these networks were created because these people were not able to socialize in the real world and so they created a world of their own. It is us the other group of people who used these platforms to expand our networks.

    It is simply like the bugger who did not want to walk, so he created a skate board.

  • gbacoder

    Pivot or iteration, newsfeed certainly came along at the right time to make facebook beat the competition. Without it facebook may never have made it to the top.

  • Guest

    "You’re already logged into Facebook because the default setting was Google+ and who bothers to use that?"

  • Guest33

    Everyone gives Facebook and social media in general far too much importance.

    In the U.S., Facebook derives what?  12 minutes per day for active users?  About the same amount of time spent brushing your teeth?

    Yes, Facebook has spawned a generation of faux-tech writers who go on endlessly about Facebook -- Earning a living -- But, no one in the real world cares.

    Facebook have a lot of accounts, some active, some not so active.  It's allure is already fading when you chat with teens.  

    Facebook getting in bed with Wal-Mart (read last week's stories) could be the proverbial shark-jump.