Ramblings & ephemera

The importance of network effects to social software

From danah boyd’s “Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?” at the Microsoft Research Tech Fest, Redmond, Washington (danah: 26 February 2009):

Many who build technology think that a technology’s feature set is the key to its adoption and popularity. With social media, this is often not the case. There are triggers that drive early adopters to a site, but the single most important factor in determining whether or not a person will adopt one of these sites is whether or not it is the place where their friends hangout. In each of these cases, network effects played a significant role in the spread and adoption of the site.

The uptake of social media is quite different than the uptake of non-social technologies. For the most part, you don’t need your friends to use Word to find the tool useful. You do need your friends to use email for it to be useful, but, thanks to properties of that medium, you don’t need them to be using Outlook or Hotmail to write to them. Many of the new genres of social media are walled gardens, requiring your friends to use that exact site to be valuable. This has its advantages for the companies who build it – that’s the whole attitude behind lock-in. But it also has its costs. Consider for example the fact that working class and upper class kids can’t talk to one another if they are on different SNSs.

Friendster didn’t understand network effects. In kicking off users who weren’t conforming to their standards, they pissed off more than those users; they pissed off those users’ friends who were left with little purpose to use the site. The popularity of Friendster unraveled as fast as it picked up, but the company never realized what hit them. All of their metrics were based on number of users. While only a few users deleted their accounts, the impact of those lost accounts was huge. The friends of those who departed slowly stopped using the site. At first, they went from logging in every hour to logging in every day, never affecting the metrics. But as nothing new came in and as the collective interest waned, their attention went elsewhere. Today, Friendster is succeeding because of its popularity in other countries, but in the US, it’s a graveyard of hipsters stuck in 2003.

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