More than a year ago I spent time thinking about Facebook and the problem it solves. Back then, Facebook was growing in a staggering speed, adding 1 million users every week. This week, Facebook turned 5 and with 15% of the world internet users on Facebook, it is clear they are winning the game of user adoption. I made two claims about Facebook back then and I am happy to say I was very wrong about one and only somehow right about the other. Not much of a record…
I was wrong about the problem Facebook is solving. I thought it was a fun product that did not solve any real life problem. With 15 months of perspective I feel that I have a better idea: Facebook is so successful because we are all absolutely horrible in managing our social relations. We suck in staying in touch with people- a real life problem right there. We all collect connections during our lives: High school, college, neighbors, gym buddies, work friends from 5-6 different employers and other miscellaneous friends. This adds up to hundreds of people we want to have a “link” to. Before Facebook, we had to work hard and be proactive in order to stay connected. The “old era” alternatives of calling, mailing, sending cards etc required some kind of a system to remind us to connect and an average of 5-30 minutes for each interaction.
Facebook allows us to be reactive, which is a natural talent of all of us. We go there once a day or two, skim through the news and reactively comment on statuses, send birthday wishes and stay in touch. I can now spend few seconds reading, commenting and connecting with many more people. Robin Dunbar came up with his famous Dunbar number, claiming that homosapiens can stay in touch with up to 150 other individuals- Facebook allows you to do a better job staying in touch with those 150 and have a potential access to many more. Facebook became our personal CRM system.
The other claim I made was that Facebook is not offering any segmentation and not trying to adapt to different age groups and interests. Ning is exactly the opposite when it comes to segmentation. According to Ning’s CEO, it attracts 2500-3000 new networks every day. Ning is hosting 700,000 different networks so it clearly proved the need for segmentation in the social graph. Nevertheless, with 10% of Facebook traffic, it is clear that Facebook management decided it had a bigger fish to fry.
What works for Facebook would not necessarily work for others. I am not sure that Facebook founders knew which problem they were solving when they came up with the service but they hit a vein and continued at it, ignoring all the good (but useless) advice they got. There is no point ignoring the rules of product greatness as a habit, but there is room for ignoring them if you really know what you have is something big.