Or: Facebook, Youth Culture, & the Success of Social Networks
This essay is some immediate thinking about Google+ that I’ve been throwing around for the past couple weeks. Context: I joined G+ in the first wave of invites, so I’ve been watching the service for what amounts to “a while.” Most of my observations below come from 1) my experience working with danah boyd on her research projects at Microsoft Research New England over the past year, and 2) my personal experience as a Facebook early adopter (ie., only college students) in 2005.
I’ve read dozens of articles over the past few weeks about how Google Plus (hereafter Google+) presents a challenge to Facebook (and Twitter), but I’m here to say that Facebook will maintain its dominance over Google’s social competitor because of one reason: Facebook’s social value.
What do I mean by social value, especially now that social, social network, social graph, and other uses of the buzzword have infiltrated and inundated the tech industry and start-up sector? Instead of defining social value directly, let me position it up against another term: informational value. If we think of a communication technology having social value, the technology allows us to inform and be informed about matters relating to our identities and our relationships. Communication technologies also have informational values: that is, supplying relevant data, stories, and news that don’t necessarily reflect our interpersonal connections. A simple distinction between these two values might be illustrated like this:
Status update reflecting social value: “I ate a hamburger today at lunch with Mary.”
Status update reflecting informational value: “I ate lunch today at Five Guys, and it was really good! [link to website]“
So, let me propose this observation: In its current structure, Google+ has no social value. It appears to have a great potential for informational value. Yet because Facebook’s structure allows its users to derive a high social value from the platform. Facebook will continue to maintain a large user population that uses Facebook specifically for its social value.
This is not to say that Facebook has no informational value. Actually, over the years, it’s quite obvious that Facebook has moved its strategy from emphasizing social value to informational value. For instance, the dominance of the News Feed as a major hub for interaction and the eventually-prominent practice of sharing and gathering news and links means that more and more users have found Facebook to be a great platform for producing and gathering news and advice.
However, Facebook’s history tells us a lot about its social value, and an important demographic of Facebook users — namely American teenagers — illustrates why Google+ might not be adopted for the reasons most tech-savvy adults want.
Facebook & Social Value in Collegiate Life
Although a lot of people criticized The Social Network for warping the truth behind Facebook’s history, there are actually some really interesting points that are emphasized throughout the film that not many critics picked up on. One of the most important, I believe, is the importance of college networks to Facebook’s success. This scene in particular stood out to me, where Mark and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Erica talk in Grendel’s Den (a local bar in Harvard Square):
Erica Albright: I have to go study.
Mark Zuckerberg: You don't have to study.
Erica Albright: [Exasperated and angry] Why do you keep saying I don't have to study?
Mark Zuckerberg: Because you go to BU!
Erica Albright: [Erica stares at him, furious]
I thought this joke was quite funny (disclaimer: I went to Boston University), but it also picks up on an important bit of Boston college culture that people who haven’t lived in the city don’t understand: networks between colleges are very important to student socialization. Each school is connected to each other through students’ IRL social networks.
The initial success of Facebook was built upon these collegiate connections. It’s readily apparent in The Social Network, when Mark explains the rollout strategy to Sean Parker at dinner: target universities developing their own Facebook-like online social networks by connecting all the colleges around them with Facebook. Of course, the key to student adoption of Facebook was contemporary collegiate youth culture itself: socialization over education, hook-up culture, cultural importance of parties. Another extremely important scene in The Social Network (again overlooked) is when Mark impulsively adds the “Relationship” status to users’ profile pages — important because it eventually played so a large role in college relationships (or time spent figuring out who was in one or who was single).
I bring up youth culture because for its first few years with college students — and eventually with high school students as well — Facebook played a gigantic social role in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Facebook connected youth, and we didn’t share links: we shared ourselves. The summer before I entered college, I spent countless hours looking through the “Boston University” network, searching out potential connections, figuring out who was in my dormitory and classes. Some of my friends even contacted random students and made friendships before school even started. The role of the profile in collegiate culture reigned supreme from around 2004 to 2008.
It’s also important to note that Facebook’s success within youth networks helped it dominate other services. MySpace’s popularity at the time took two paths: 1) those who were on MySpace saw value in Facebook’s clean interface and “safer” way for connecting real-life friendships with online relationships (and vice versa), and 2) those who were not using MySpace (like myself) saw immediate value in Facebook because it was a practical technology to organize the chaos of college life. MySpace’s demise began in 2008; the transition really took a hit as high school students began transitioning to Facebook in late 2006, who also saw it as a “less sketchy” online hangout spot (and the death knell truly rang in 2007 when the site opened up to anyone over age 13).
Today, a high majority of college and high school students maintain Facebook profiles. Students continue to structure their interpersonal relationships through Facebook: managing interesting, chatting with close friends, discovering gossip, bullying: all of which melds real-life with online life. This is especially pertinent for kids who don’t have as much mobility in their daily lives (eg., it’s difficult to hang out with friends after school), so many teens hit Facebook as a suitable replacement for the mall, park, library, etc.
Facebook Tensions: Adults & Differing Social Values
I’ve always had an issue with adults who say “I’m quitting Facebook; I don’t have a use for it.” (Sometimes this sentiment comes out as “I don’t like Facebook’s privacy issues. But it’s not like I had a use for it anyway.”) It especially irks me when these same adults chastise the younger generation for spending so much time on social network sites: what could kids possibly be doing on them? The answer is frequently “not much.” Teens are bored; Facebook provides them an outlet. But I realize that many adults see teens’ online social practices as similar to their own, which they are not. While it’s true that both kids and adults are constantly negotiating relationships with other people, students have infrastructure for those negotiations: schools. Schools continue to be the primary structure for many kids’ lives, and dynamics within schools heavily impact kids’ socialization. Adults may have something similar (like the workplace or an interest group), but youth interact with one another in school settings on a hyperdeterministic social level comparatively.
Even so, a lot of adults have managed to find similar social value in Facebook’s platform, primarily structured by interactions around the profile page: meeting old friends, keeping up to date about family, the social minutiae that make up everyday social life. But the tech-savvy adults who don’t find this value — the “I’m quitting Facebook”-ers — don’t because they have already established and maintained their personal networks in other spaces, usually email. It’s the same adults that were surprised about kids frequently using IM in the early 2000s — we teens hadn’t established networks yet, and IM was easier to keep on top of our friends… especially because AIM profiles in 2001 played the same role as Facebook profiles do now!
The ultimate issue with Facebook’s social value is its long-term sustainability. As we move through the rapidly-fluctuating phases of early life — from high school to college to young adulthood to 30+ — our social networks change with us. At the onset of Facebook, the social norm was to accept (almost) everybody you met in real life (in class, at a party, friends-of-friends) on Facebook. Why? It’s a difficult question, variable across different types of people. Personally, I’d wager it was half-cataloguing (contact info, keep track of people at college) and half-trend-setting (everyone Friends each other, so it’s easy to say “We’ll friend each other” after you meet someone). But over time, these saturated networks gave rise to issues, such as context collapse (of which Alice Marwick and danah have written extensively). In 2011, teens transitioning to college (the focus of Fred Stutzman’s work) must navigate a revised set of social norms for friending acquaintances; those exiting college face an entirely different set of norms. Teens may transition to email to maintain their connections in the work and professional environment; if not, we’ll probably see a mish-mash of various technologies struggling to maintain coherency.
Informational Value: Twitter as “Social Network”
I’ve talked a lot about social value, but let me tackle the concept of informational value before discussing Google+. The occasional comparison to Twitter is something I also want to address in this essay.
If we consider Facebook to be the purveyor of social value, Twitter embodies informational value. Twitter does away with the profile structure (maintaining only minimal details) in favor of sharing information: it curates an environment that is more news and links than personal, quotidian updates. Twitter also creates a physical structure of equality: every user’s tweet takes up at most around 250 pixels of space in the timeline. The maximum of 140 characters per message enforces brevity but also form: you get headlines rather than details, allowing the user to follow up on anything interesting after the initial glance by clicking a link (if provided). Facebook embodies similar design principles: matching profiles, similar updates (with separate Note pages for longer mental expulsions), equivalent photo albums. And as I stated before, over time, Facebook has attempted to force the emergence of more informational value by de-emphasizing the profile in favor of the Newsfeed.
Twitter, though, provides limited social value. The platform does not do a good job at helping users to manage interpersonal relationships or personal information (about yourself or others). While at their simplest, both Twitter and Facebook let a user manage “status updates,” but Twitter’s role equates more to blogging as Facebook feels more similar to instant messaging. Twitter, therefore, acts as a social network for managing users-as-information-carriers.
Google Plus: Poor Social Value, Lacking Informational Value
So let’s finally talk a bit about Google+. My argument is two-fold: Google+ has poor social value yet also lacks enough informational value. Google+ will probably not overtake Facebook as a platform for interpersonal socialization (for those that prefer that use of a social network), nor will it replace Twitter, because its design is not as streamlined and optimized for fast information filtering and curation.
It’s clear that Google+ was constructed for two reasons: 1) to maintain Google’s social graph as a valuable asset that could unite the company’s products, and 2) to create an appealing alternative to Facebook that approaches issues and ideologies of privacy in a more practical way. Millions of users have Gmail accounts and curate contact lists on Android phones; additionally, millions of other users (I can’t estimate the overlap) are concerned about Facebook’s past privacy debacles and the company’s general ideology to maintain a “public” culture.
But as much as the publicity/privacy issue is a major player in the push for popularity of this new platform, I don’t think that’s what’s ultimately at stake — especially if Google wants to reach the same level of use that Facebook currently boasts. The primary issue that Google+ should be concerned about is the balance between social value and information value.
Google+ currently features a profile system, but the profile is de-emphasized in favor of the Stream (informational > social). Also, there’s an issue with discovering streams: namely, you need to know the person (ie., have their email address) in order for them to appear as a potential contact (at least initially: eventually you can find other people through friends’ profiles or as content is shared by your friends). The conflict therefore is that the social network is built on existing relationships and hinders discovering new people: in either informational or social circumstances.
It goes without saying that one of the most important features to Facebook’s success was the Wall on each profile. Without a (public or private*) one-to-one communication affordance, every piece of information dispersed through Google+ is broadcast to the masses. The issue with broadcast, though, is that even with a system build around privacy (Circles), various users can follow other users, so one user can have thousands of followers (à la Twitter) but no understanding of who is actually following them or why. It’s a complicated mish-mash of Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t necessarily understand the full purpose of the combinations.
Overall, the people-you-already-know limitation, I think, is the largest barrier to participation on Google+. It also doesn’t help that the varying size of posts makes gleaning information from the Stream very difficult; in other words, Google+ does Twitter worse than Twitter.
*Apparently a private messaging system will be rolling out soon.
Conclusion: Google Plus & the Cultural Issue of Early Adopters
It’s clear that Google+ is still in beta: one quote of current user demographics set them at 88% male. It’s also clear that the invitation push went out through Google employees to their friends in a wave disseminating from the Silicon Valley tech industry. Are there issue with this? Most definitely. I think it’s actually worse than a Quora situation, which is a hangout for tech geeks to get their celebrity on (namely hope that tech industry elites answer their questions). The early adopters will shape the focus of Google+. And the fact that Facebook had one of the most unique early adopter communities (all college students) meant that it evolved in very particular and peculiar ways.
As I mentioned in the previous section, I don’t understand the intentions of the combination of Facebook’s and Twitter’s features. If we were to look back at social network site history, all the way to Friendster, we can see similar patterns in the initial structure: making connections with people you know already. But the platform allowed the discovery and interaction of unknown users, such that practices of flirtation and dating emerged within a very local context (namely, San Francisco; at least initially).
By designing for strict privacy, Google+ inhibits social value to emerge from the platform, unlike with Facebook, where the initial publicity within a structured social context (colleges) allowed for social norms to develop. Probably the looming issue is the consolidation of such social contexts outside of privileged and structured spaces.