Facebook's 100K person problem and network power

by admin on February 19, 2009

in General,Innovation

The last few days, Facebook has been at the centre of a firestorm over changes it made to its terms of service. Broadly speaking, when you sign up to Facebook, you grant it a license to use your material for the purpose of its business model. For most people that’s not an unreasonable exchange for a service that provides many applications at no cost to the user. The change meant that Facebook retained those rights, even after you leave the service, effectively in perpetuity.

Some saw this as a really bad move, coming as it does on the back of a poor history for observing generally accepted user rights. Within a matter of days, Facebook back peddled, reverting to the old terms while it works out a user’s Bill of Rights. So all’s well in the world again. It is what happened in the interim that fascinates me and which should be studied.

My fellow SAP Mentor Anne Petteroe set up a People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS) Facebook group on February 16th. I mentioned it twice in ZDNet blog posts. The first on February 17th noted there were 40,000+ members. My second, posted some 14 hours later noted 75,000+ members. In between, I wrote a post on SAP/SDN at which time there were 66,000+ members. As at the time of writing this post, 9 hours on from the last one at ZDNet, the group has reached 101,269 members. By any standards that is an astonishing rate of growth. The interesting point is that it continues to grow, even though Facebook has backed away from the issue.

Until recently, many of the business arguments against community formation have centred around the fact the technology appeals to a demographic with which business is not really interested or that it is dominated by technology fans. It’s the ‘don’t bother us with this crap’ defense. No-one can say the same about Facebook today and its 175 million users.

I’ve spoken with Anne about the dynamics involved that saw her group grow so rapidly. There is a lot of analysis to do but being first was unquestionably advantageous. Anne says the fact CNN picked up the story definitely amplified its appeal. Anne relentlessly pimped the group in Twitter and we both know that has a amplifying effect through both the Re-Tweet mechanism and the referenced comments. Anne has 742 Twitter followers, I have 2,923. More important, the people with whom we are connected hook into the 1.2 million SAP/SDN network and specifically the SAP Mentor group. While I don’t have the ‘read’ stats for the SAPD/SDN post, one commenter’s note is important:

It shows our SAP Mentors and our SCN contributors are much more than just somewhat important. We think they are one of our mos important soundboards. It’s kinda funny because I think Facebook could learn something from our community approach. Bigger does not always mean better. It also shows that the voice of the customer is still becoming more and more important. I like it… a lot.

These are bold claims but they have resonance in the context of this set of events.

My current take is that networking power has become much more important than business might imagine. When an almost unknown person from Norway can articulate an issue in a way that attracts attention in this way, then you’ve got to ask: Who are my most important people and why?

It helps that mainstream media jumped in and it also helps that a number of powerful bloggers took up the cause. But even together, those factors don’t explain this growth.

My tentative conclusion is that the network and the collective power of even a relatively small number of individual nodes on that network can operate as a megaphone with the ability to amplify out of all proportion to their collective group size. It unquestionably needs a ’cause’ around which people can easily gather, even if they don’t necessarily understand the real mature of that cause. The ToS issue for instance is not that easy to unravel though Anne did a great job when she said on her own blog:

Personally it wasn’t so much about getting Facebook to change their TOS (at least initially). If you read the old TOS you would have known that they always sucked and probably always will. Ideally they would add the two lines they removed again, edit the wording in some places, explain why they felt they needed to change the Terms of Service and how these changes would affect their users.

For me it was much more a matter of Facebook AGAIN not communicating properly with their members. Is it too much to ask for a notification or an email stating that they have changed their TOS?

Perhaps the most important point though and one that resonates in the work I do on the buy side of enterprise software:

What I am hoping to achieve is for Facebook to realize that talking to your members actually is a good thing.

In other words, it is not just the comprehension but the contextual meaning of the issue that plays a significant role.

One feature I have noticed and that is the 1:9:90 rule I talk about holds good even in this impassioned group. The number of Facebook Wall posts is around 1,500. That means most are signing up ‘in sympathy.’ One more nugget. People at the top of the Facebook chain engaged directly with Anne and her group. Given the relative size of the 100% engaged people and Anne’s participation, you’ve got to ask another question: Is the 99% of silent members that important? Clearly they are to Facebook.

Many people dismiss the value of the ‘lurker.’ I certainly do not. We cannot for example know what their offline influence looks like but we can reasonably assume they will talk to at least one other person. Quite often I find that things I have written about in the recent past turn up as conversation starters in other environments. It doesn’t matter that ‘the message’ is being dispersed. It matters that the conversations are happening at all.

The story is not quite over. Anne’s infamy spread quickly throughout Norway. She appeared in two Internet publications and gave three radio interviews. It’s a small country so you might expect that a touch of international fame would be seen as attractive news fodder. A German TV station talked about the group. The New York Times has contacted her. All of which will further amplify the story. But would the same have happened in the UK? Possibly.

The Guardian is on a tear over tax avoidance, a topic of important social interest to both professionals and activists. That has yet to seep into the public consciousness but it doesn’t detract from the importance of the story. The Guardian does a pretty good job of handling issues of this kind but has yet to find a way of truly acting as a mainstream amplifier like the NYT. As I contemplate future plans for ICAEW’s IT Counts I see see many lessons that can be drawn from this experience.

Final word. Robert Scoble thinks that Facebook’s ToS is a non-issue. Robert’s position reminds me of the way the Big Four try pretend their complicity in issues over tax fraud, tax avoidance and audit quality are passing aberrations. I’ve got news for Robert. 101,000+ people and counting think otherwise. And so, it seems, does Facebook. I’m wondering what would happen if similar numbers felt the same way about the Big Four. As professionals, we avoid these issues at our peril.

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Krupo February 26, 2009 at 9:28 am

Yeah, this was definitely huge – random close friends who generally don't discuss tech with me had this on their minds.

And heck, I gave serious thought to setting up a Flickr Pro account.

But at the same time, I've always been circumspect about facebook – I really thought the ToS claimed full ownership of everything shared there – which would have been my reason for not being particularly shocked by the latest developments.

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