Friday, November 30, 2007

Anti-Network Externalities

Given the existence of network externalities in social networking sites – that is, the more other people who use a given site, the more useful it becomes – we might expect a single networking site to obtain a dominant position and become “locked in.” Yet for some reason, the equilibrium keeps shifting: first Friendster, then MySpace, and now apparently Facebook. I’ve puzzled about this problem before; now I think Cory Doctorow has solved the mystery. “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance,” he says, and goes on to explain:
For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there's a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I'd cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, "Am I your friend?" yes or no, this instant, please.

... It's socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list -- but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites...
Doctorow makes a number of other valid complaints against social networking sites. Here’s the one that irks me most: the tendency of MySpace, et al., to inject explicitness into things usually left comfortably vague. I’d really rather not say who my eight best friends are, thank you, but on MySpace I have no choice. (Some people will even assume a rank ordering within your Top 8.) Embarking on a new romantic relationship? Well, the two of you better agree on the precise moment when you’ve officially transitioned from “Single” to “In a Relationship,” lest you have an embarrassing period in which one of you is officially single and the other officially not. I know some people who now regard MySpace “In a Relationship” status as the defining marker for whether a couple is exclusive. Has your income gone up (or down)? You might want to update your “Income” box. Confused about your sexual identity? Well, when you figure it out, let us all know in the “Sexual Orientation” box.

Fortunately, MySpace does permit you not to post an answer in some (though not all) of these categories, but even the choice to remain silent is an explicit one. MySpace demands rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! (Points for the first nerd commenter to identify the source of that quote.) I’m especially amused by the work-arounds people have developed to create uncertainty where MySpace allows none. Actresses who don’t want to disclose their ages, for instance, commonly show up as “99 years old” in the profiles.

Link via Tim Harford.

7 comments:

mike said...

hitchhiker's guide, of course! those philosophers had a point, it turns out.

Chad said...

Glen -- I actually find some of Cory's other pet peeves more compelling reasons for shifting dominance. Maybe most people do initially join a new social networking site because everyone else is doing it, but I think most Facebook users agree that it's better than MySpace and most MySpace users agree that it's better than Friendster. Now, maybe a new social networking site requires a higher number of early adopters before it catches on, but otherwise this doesn't sound much different than the pattern we see for any other innovative product released into the market. The more interesting question is what kind of features a new social networking site would have to have to usurp Facebook, because I suspect the critical mass of defectors to another product will have to be really big this time before the crowd follows.

Will said...

Ah, yes, the explicitness point is very good. Facebook "top friends" always ends up being divisive.

Anonymous said...

MySpace has changed a great deal. Once upon a time... you really did connect with new people you had never met before. Now it is spam-bots or bands and almost nothing else.

The nature of the beast has been altered.

Enrique said...

if you google the quote it shows up in a bunch of peoples my space page. (i guess im just stating the obvious)

Joe said...

Anonymous said: "Once upon a time... you really did connect with new people you had never met before. Now it is spam-bots or bands and almost nothing else."

Maybe that's the real crux of why network sites lose appeal. Success attracts those who want to exploit the vast number of members for profit (lots of spam), which gradually ruins the social network, making other competitors more attractive. Many other competitors are around and people gravitate towards the one that's the best (hence why each new network has been an improvement on the last).

North Cyprus said...

Now after two years from this article it all came up true...