Friday, September 30, 2011

Facebook's Secret Sauce

I would say there have been Three Ages of the Internet.

The first was the Internet era proper, where only the US government and universities (and maybe a few other organisations) had it. There was email of course, and really cool stuff like Archie and Gopher (whatever they were) that you could access on text-based terminals.

Then there was the Web, which was nice and graphical and coincidentally came out at roughly the same time as the extremely popular Windows 95. The Web through Windows made the Internet something for regular folks, not just geeks. There was surfing and search, pleasurable as well as useful. The Web soon gobbled up email too (webmail changed the user-facing protocol from SMTP and POP to HTTP). And blogs became a way for the little guy to communicate his own views to the world instead of just consuming the output of established media. That was the first step towards mass participation.

Then there came Facebook. More than Picasa and on par with Skype, Facebook has suddenly made the Internet a must-have for everyone. I'm betting Facebook and Skype have driven Internet usage to new highs, both in terms of bandwidth consumed and in terms of market penetration. And along the way, Facebook has sucked the oxygen out of blogs. Ask me. I should know.

That deserves the title of 'third generation Internet'.

Skype's appeal is easily understood. It's the videophone of science fiction that the Telco monopolies never gave us. (Thanks, guys.) But what is it with Facebook? If it's just a place where friends hang out and exchange news and funny stories, would it really have become all that big?

I've been thinking a lot about this, because I'm a latecomer to Facebook, having resisted it for a while. Now I find I'm thinking of it as 'Wastehook', an addictive way to spend time that I later regret. What made Facebook so addictive to a person who resisted it so much to start with?

Yes, it's cool that we can keep tabs on all the people we've ever known. But there's more to it than that.

I think the one thing of absolute genius that Facebook has pioneered is the 'friends of friends' concept. 'Friends of friends' gives you visibility just beyond the horizon of your circle of contacts. You get to know of people who are somewhat interesting because of the friends you share. Sometimes, they turn out to be people you know too! Bonus points for the thrill in such cases.

'Friends of friends' are people our friends like and trust, and since we like and trust our friends, their friends are people we're already favourably disposed towards. We don't mind reading the things they say. Sometimes, they say witty and wise things. Facebook is a lot more interesting because of these people. It's not just our boring and predictable friends. It's these people, unknown but not quite irrelevant, who bring a bit of variety to the experience. It's somewhat interesting when a friend puts up photos of themselves, but a lot more interesting to read what their friends have to say about it, even if we don't know many of them. We can join in the conversation and politely add to what they're saying, and nobody minds. A nice polite party with decent people we could be friends with. That's Facebook.

'Friends of friends' prevents Facebook from becoming a stale backwater, a stagnant pond, an eddy in a stream. It's not quite the wide blue ocean, though. It's just a safe little harbour. 'Friends of friends' expands our circle just enough to make Facebook an interesting place to hang out, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming or irrelevant.

I'd say that's Facebook's secret sauce.

[What about Google+? Well, Google+ pioneeered categories of friends, but Facebook quickly neutralised that advantage. An authoritative source informs me that Google+ has a rough equivalent to 'friends of friends' based on followers and following, so the effect could be similar. But my prize for pioneering the next generation of the Internet goes to Facebook in any case, not Google+.]

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