Why is Facebook such a success?

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Our last post looked at Facebook’s announcement yesterday that it had reached 500 million users. A huge number but it should not be mistaken as proof that Facebook is now ubiquitous. However, Facebook’s growth is impressive both because of the size the social network and the way it has grown when alternative social networks have been less explosive.

Yesterday, I appeared on BBC News talking about exactly this issue. Amongst the many reasons why Facebook is a success (and I’m sure that an element of luck and good timing is, of course, in that mix), I explain why I think two things have made a real difference:

  1. Having some really good products that have helped people and change the way they connect with people online. Most notably the photos product - by allowing an easy way for people to share photos and associate people with the photos they are in (through tags) they have created a powerful tool that many people use. In many ways Facebook is to photos what YouTube is to videos.
  2. Making it really easy for people to set up their own groups. For individual users this means that their experience of Facebook is often made up of their connections and the groups of these that they are part of. It is a huge social network made up of lots of little groups. This second point is great for user created groups but adds to the reasons why Facebook is a difficult place to play for brands and is not always the answer to their social media strategy.

Below is the BBC News piece from yesterday that I am interviewed for, we’d love your thoughts on this and why you think that Facebook is such a success.

YouTube is five - let’s look at the anthropology

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Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

YouTube is five. It was on April 23rd 2005 that the first video was posted on YouTube. Now it has become a ubiquitous social media tool allowing people to share videos with each other, to comment on them and to sort and rate videos they enjoy. But why would people upload videos in the first place and what sort of videos do they upload. As YouTube turns five it is worth reexamining the nature of YouTube videos and the anthropology that is going on here.

Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and head of the Digital Ethnography Working Group, presents a great view of YouTube from an anthropological perspective. From exploring the fact that more content has been added to YouTube in the past six months than in a lifetime of network TV in the US, through a catagorisation of YouTube videos, this is a really informative video. It’s long (just shy of an hour) but I think time spent watching this is time well spent. Michael is a captivating speaker and manages to express things we think we know in different ways. From social media to online communities and social networks; you’ll learn something new and understand better why people are motivated to take part and contribute online.

The Matthew Effect - linking and how things become viral in social media

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Symbol of St Matthew
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

The Matthew Effect dates from the 1960s. It is the theory, first expressed by sociologist Robert K. Merton, that those who possess power and economic or social capital can leverage those resources to gain more power or capital. Put simply: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or as it is expressed in the Gospel of St Matthew, from which the effect takes its name:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

So what does this have to do with social media? Well this great presentation and video from Torsten Henning Hensel explores the power of linking online and how the Matthew Effect can help us to understand how things become viral and spread online and in social media. As Hensel explains:

Thanks to the Matthew Effect, the already famous get more famous, the often quoted get more and more quoted…

It is easy to see how this transfers into social media - the more something is spread the more it will be spread even further by word of mouth. Imagine two pieces of content of equal quality, interest or importance. It is the content that has been linked to, retweeted, forwarded or otherwise referred to that is more likely to become viral. For Hensel, “Social media is a linking machine” and the more links you can get to a piece of content the more likely that content is to become viral when compared to a similar piece.

This is an interesting theory and a great attempt to deconstruct and to understand what makes something go viral. The presentation is Required Reading this week at FreshNetworks as it reminds us all of the importance of links.

Matthew Effect: The Power of Links
View more presentations from Torsten Henning Hensel.

Why we all love watching videos online (especially at work)

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Whether it’s a sneezing panda, Charlie biting that finger, or just Rick Astley, everybody loves a good online video. It doesn’t have to be amusing either, some of the most popular videos online are factual and we see great use of video in online communities to engage people in a way that articles and text often can’t. Whatever the balance is of serious to amusing (and I would guess it was weighted towards the latter) a report out today from Nielsen Online tells us what most employers have always suspected. That most of us are watching videos at work.

Their VideoCensus of US internet users showed that 65% of all people who watch online video do so during 9am and 5pm on weekdays - when they’re at work. By contrast on only 51% of them are viewing videos during the day at weekends. There are probably some reasons that help to explain this - broadband penetration, whilst high across the US, is higher for corporates than for individuals and so viewing videos may be easier for some at work than at home. However, I suspect the real reasons are that videos make up many of the popular virals that are sent to work email addresses, and that videos are distracting and engage people in a way that is different to other material they see during working hours.

Whatever the reasoning behind this survey, it is true that video engages. It’s a really powerful tool and one that is worth perfecting if you’re in the business of using social media or running online communities. At FreshNetworks we make a lot of use of video in the communities that we run and anybody who joins the team very quickly gets used to picking up a camera, interviewing some people and editing it down to a short clip for one of the communities. Recently I was sent a copy of a new book from O’Reilly Media (YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing the Charts) and whilst I was initially skeptical about this, it’s much more use than the title suggests - and we now use it as a textbook of how to make good video for online.

In our communities, we find that community members respond better in some circumstances to video than they do to articles, and that the completed view rate is often higher than I suspect the completed read rate is for longer articles. Finally, we find that providing video is a great way to stimulate activity on the communities themselves. Not only do people interact around the content, they are also much more likely to upload their own videos after we have uploaded some.

So whether we watch them too much at work or not, videos are really good engagement tools online and can help to boost activity on an online community.

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Required reading - An anthropological introduction to YouTube

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You may remember a post where I highlighted a video that demonstrated what Web 2.0 was in a very visual form (see here). Well, I came across another great video from the guys at Kansas State University. Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and head of the Digital Ethnography Working Group, presents a view of YouTube from an anthropological perspective.

From exploring the fact that more content has been added to YouTube in the past six months than in a lifetime of network TV in the US, through a catagorisation of YouTube videos, this is a really informative video. It’s long (just shy of an hour) but I think time spent watching this is time well spent. Michael is a captivating speaker and manages to express things we think we know in different ways. From social media to online communities and social networks; you’ll learn something new and understand better why people are motivated to take part and contribute online.

  • Web 2.0 …The Machine is Us/ing Us
  • Serious about Social Media: Are We Losing the of Context of Our Lives?
  • YouTube through an anthropologist’s eyes
  • Wesch on YouTube
  • Michael Wesch and the Future of Education