In Part 1 of this Treatise on the Wall, I covered the earliest incarnations of the wall on the first social networks. I recently heard a talk at UW where the speaker mentioned the book Born Digital, explaining that those that were born after 1983 grew up with the internet, and therefore understand it as digital natives, in a fundamentally different way than those born before 1983, or those who are digital immigrants. While pondering that idea, it occurred to me that most of what I recall of the early days of social networking has been lost to upgrades.
In fact, very few people know what these sites were really like when they started, on this new frontier, because most of the people who were writing the history are too old to be true early-adopters of sites like Facebook – which caught-on as a closed network for kids at Harvard, MIT, & Berkeley in Spring 2004. Berkeley was the 5th university nationwide to have a Facebook network, and, by the time it had made its way to the majority of US colleges , it had already evolved significantly. This is the story of my online upbringing on the front-lines of the social networking phenomenon, and what we can learn from examining it’s roots.
When we left-off in Part 1, Facebook had been rapidly expanding out of the top-tier into the broad mainstream schools around the US, and that’s when Facebook rolled-out what I believe was their 2nd Killer App. The first Killer App was simply connecting to your real world friends. Note this is different from other social networks like MySpace: real world friends. On Facebook you were using your real name and connecting with your real-world friends at your real school. There was validation. You could pick which dorm or fraternity you lived in from a drop-down menu – they knew.
The second killer app was Photos. When Facebook launched photos, it changed the way we did photos. It was 2004, and the price of digital cameras had finally come down to the point where every 19-year-old girl could get one for Christmas. And so suddenly every party had thousands of pictures taken – mostly of hot girls posing together making their boyfriends snap pictures of them in their Saturday-best. Up until that point, we’d all been using Ofoto.com or PhotoBucket.com or YahooPhotos to host our pictures. We would post our login & password on our AIM profiles so that our friends could login and see all our pictures, and download the ones they wanted to keep.
This was cumbersome – I had to setup a photo account, post the login & password somewhere where the right people could find it like AIM, the wrong people couldn’t (so no geocities), and then others had to know where to look. They had to log in, and download the pictures they wanted to keep – usually one-by-one – because these sites were designed to make it easy to get pictures in, not take them out (syndicate them).
In one fell swoop Facebook redefined photo sharing for an entire generation. And if you were born before 1983, you probably had no idea. You probably still have no idea. With Facebook, the sharing & syndicating was built-right-in. You could “tag” people in the shot – and thus – when you went to “Prasid’s photos” you would see all the photos I had uploaded (just like Ofoto), but you would also see all the photos that other people had uploaded, and had tagged me in them.
This instantly solved the problem of syndicating the right photos to everyone who was relevant. This also created a whole new marketplace for us – the users – to hawk our populartiy and barter for social status. Now, my popularity was a function not just of who I was seen talking to on Walls, but of who I was seen standing next to in a picture from last night’s party. The default-to-public nature of Facebook ensured that everyone’s pictures were there for the stalking, and the deep-penetration at a small set of schools meant that there were pictures of people you knew – and pictures by others with you in them. Voyeurism had never been so easy. Yes, it was still important to be in the cool crowd at parties, but it was more important to be in their Facebook pictures – because as any cool kid will tell you, perception is reality.
Facebook effectively killed the photo sharing industry. The only real survivor was Flikr, who also used the concept of tagging to make pictures social. Facebook then aggresively rolled-out new features, or what today we might call “Apps” such as Facebook Events, Notes, and Posted Items. Each of these went after an existing category of online services. Events quickly replaced Evite in the youth market – why should I mine Facebook for email addresses, just to dump them into Evite to send people an invitation to an email address that they check once a week, when they’re checking Facebook every hour? Notes went after blogging with mixed success, but this was at a moment when blogging itself was become a more serious profession, and bloggers were demanding more powerful tools and more powerful platforms.
Then in 2005 Facebook struck upon a genuinely brilliant innovation by creating the newsfeed. The power of the newsfeed was that it changed the model from a “pull” model where I went to people’s profiles to see their info to a “push” model where Facebook pushed relevant information to my homepage, enticing me to dive deeper. This fundamentally made Facebook much more sticky, because now I had a reason to log in, and once I logged-in, I was presented with news items I might want to click on and explore. People could now see what I was up to in remote corners of the network, without having to stalk my every move. At first we cried out, alarmed, that this would ruin everything, this was too stalkerish. Facebook pulled-back, but did not relent, they didn’t give in to us, knowing that this was the future. Eventually users grew accustomed to the Newsfeed, and all was well again.
Facebook made a critical decision that shaped the industry. There were too many features that users wanted. A more powerful message inbox. Upload & Tagging for videos in addition to pictures. Just to name a few. Instead of trying to build everything, why not let talented developers build their own “Apps?” So Facebook built a platform. They launched Facebook Video on this new platform, as a sort-of pilot (this is my speculation), and then launched the Facebook platform itself. This changed everything. They effectively co-opted innovation. Why would anyone try to compete with Facebook for users if they could just build on-top of Facebook’s existing user-base. Thus, they made their users happier by giving them applications they otherwise wouldn’t have – thus keeping them on the platform. And they deterred 90% of developers from trying to compete head-to-head, and instead encouraged them to build Facebook Apps.
For the user, this was a mixed blessing. It created a whole new “App Spam” category – where every time I logged-in I had to wade through fifty requests to add useless apps – Vampire, Pirate, Ninja, FriendForSale, SuperPoke, SuperWall, and more. Few attained critical mass, and most remained stagnant. But in the land-grab that followed a few companies struck it rich with killer <Facebook> Apps. Now I could Throw Sheep at People – everything I had always dreamed of doing. But it also meant mildy useful apps like HonestyBox, and genuinely useful apps like Twitter, Yelp, Digg, and FriendFeed, which started to turn your profile’s Mini-Feed into a truly representative newsfeed of your online life.
The idea of the lifestream was born. 2008 was the year of social media, and that year we saw the rise of micro-blogging, which melded the Facebook status update, the blog entry, and the text message, into one lifestream of your every thought and move. 2008 also saw the rise of the super-aggregators like FriendFeed, and the scramble by everyone to build a platform (OpenSocial, Home.Live.com, and others), and the growing importance of mobile apps, location-based apps, thanks to iPhone and then Android. The Wall was talking more than ever, it was becoming more than an accumulation of posts, it was becoming a snapshot of our lives. The Wall was, increasingly, the core of social media.
More to come in Part 3 of “If These Walls Could Talk.”