The one thing that’s interesting about Facebook is that it’s really a framework in search of a purpose. What’s not interesting about Facebook is that Microsoft just bought a tiny sliver of it for 240 million dollars.
The problem with the world today is that we all try to jump on an online bandwagon without really seeing where it’s going. As the usage numbers stack up, we pile on, determined to hang on for the ride, whereever the destination might be. It remains to be seen if Facebook can avoid the fate of the online community platform. There’s a lot of headstones in this particular cemetary, including Orkut, Friendster and MySpace (sure, MySpace is still breathing, but barely). I’ve been in a few meetings recently where everybody is talking about how to tap into social networking. I think the thing that’s missing is that social networking isn’t a killer app. It’s human behavior, and that comes with some challenges. Humans are unpredictable.
Here’s one way we’re unpredictable. The same group that made Friendster a hot online community, Orkut the next big thing and MySpace the next Google moves from community to community, lighting a fire and then moving on, leaving nothing but a burned out shell. These are the online “nomads” who are always pushing the envelope. Green fields are their motivation, but once main street gets a little civilized (i.e. boring) they pick up stakes and move on. When the dollars chase the next hot online community, this is the gang they’re chasing. Good luck!
Here’s the second way we’re unpredictable. Even if we’re not all online “nomads”, we have a tiny little sliver of us that’s curious. We have to check out the new hot online neighbourhood. Think of it as visiting a show home. We want to look at the furniture, oooh and aaah over the decorating, but we have no intention of actually moving there. The online translation would be registering to become a member, visiting once or twice, and then never visiting again. So here, we have a compounding effect. The nomads visit and start creating buzz (everyone loves the nomads, because they’re just so leading edge). Then the tire kickers (that’s the rest of us poor schmucks) visit for a look. Suddenly you have a hockey stick registration chart that everyone drools over. You’ve got the traffic, now you just have to monetize it! Investment and acquisition offers pour in. Life is good. Two Porsches in every driveway. But then the nomads move on to the next green field (Rule One of Online Communities, There’s always another Green Field), the tire kickers don’t come back (they’re checking out the show home in the new hot community) and the hockey stick breaks in half.
And here’s the third way we’re unpredictable. We like to pick communities that make sense to us, that do something for us, that make us feel at home. We’ll choose the community, the community won’t choose us. This manifests itself in a number of ways. Every brand is trying to create an online community around their brand. I don’t want to belong to a brand based community. Most people I know don’t. Certainly not if the brand is something like potato chips or underarm deodorant. Maybe some one some where has enough time in their day to squander some of it on www.nevergetcaughtoffguard.com (I kid you not, a viral game put out by the good folks at Right Guard) but it sure the hell ain’t me. Harley riders frequent an online community, but in true Harley fashion, they took over the joint and basically kicked the landlords out. No, we create communities where it makes sense. Netflix is a community. Amazon is a community. TripAdvisor is a community. eBay is a community. They’re communities because they give us a chance to connect with other that share our interests while we’re doing something that’s important to us. The community aspect just evolves out of our desire to see what other people think about the things we’re interested in.
And there lies Facebook’s challenge. Being a cool community isn’t enough. Being a hot community isn’t enough. And communities online are rather amorphous. As I said above, communities can form in the click of a mouse online. We don’t need a lot of infrastructure to start connecting. And we don’t tend to stick in one place long. But..and this is a big one…if Facebook can create an open ecosystem where developers create functionality within the community rather than outside it, it has a chance. It won’t be the fact that it’s a community that keeps Facebook alive. It will be that it attracted enough functional critical mass to one place. It’s heading in the right direction, but we’ll see if it gets there soon enough.