Social Media Runs on ‘Friend’ Power

    by Mark Glaser
    July 9, 2007

    i-a9ac614f2d6f899922af78a53f54b6bf-Facebook friends.jpg
    friend n.
    1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
    2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.
    3. A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade.
    4. A person counted toward a “friend” total on a social networking site.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friends, and the shifting definition of friends within online social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn. There was a time in the not-so-distant pre-web past when I considered a friend to be someone who had my back, someone I could go to for advice or help, someone I considered a trusted ally.

    Now that definition has been expanded, and it’s hard to take the word seriously in the context of social networks, where someone like Tila Tequila can accumulate 1.5 million friends. Or someone who knows me through someone else or has just read my writing here considers me to be a friend. I want to be nice, I want to be accepting, so I click “yes” to those friend requests, while also blindly sending out dozens of friend requests from my email address book.


    For the purposes of being a journalist covering online media, I’ve registered for many social networks mainly to see what goes on there, rarely adding too much personal info to my profiles. I’m much more of an observer than a joiner. For the past couple years, the only one I really was active in was LinkedIn, a more business-oriented network. But lately, Facebook seems to be the place of choice for work colleagues, and I spend chunks of each morning OK’ing friend requests and seeing which cool mini-application doodads I need to add to my profile.

    For both LinkedIn and Facebook, I was driven to participate by friends — or maybe I should say “friends.” And the social networking sites are truly friend-driven and friend-powered. They don’t need to spend money on marketing, because they have the power of friends who cajole other friends to join in, who then tell 10 friends, who tell 10 friends, and so on. It’s a people-powered network effect, causing you to go where your friends are — or at least your work colleagues.

    The Rise of Facebook

    But why Facebook? It was formerly a closed network for high school and college students, but last September it was opened up to anyone. I thought back then that perhaps Facebook had jumped the shark by opening itself up and then adding a controversial “news feed” feature that let you peek in on a friend’s every online move. MediaShift readers mainly defended Facebook back then and have proved me wrong.


    Instead, I think older folks — especially in this online media world — have taken to Facebook for a few reasons:

    > They can feel hip and young by being on a social networking site set up specifically for people younger than them.

    > They can experience social networking first-hand after reading about it and talking about it without the experience.

    > They can put themselves into the shoes of the younger generation, of their kids.

    > Facebook has a clean, simple layout, unlike the more cluttered MySpace.

    > Facebook opened itself up to any third-party developer, making itself a more thriving platform.

    I’m not totally convinced that these little mini-apps and widgets are what makes the Facebook experience compelling, as most of them have fleeting entertainment value (e.g. “biting” others and turning them into zombies). I give it a lot more credit for its simplicity, and focus on photos, music and movies.

    comScore recently found that the Facebook resurgence isn’t only among my “friends.” The site’s traffic went up 89% year-over-year in May to 26.6 million unique visitors, and the demographics have changed dramatically. The age group of 12-17 was up 149% in that same period, 25-34 was up 181% and 35+ was up 98%.

    And yet, I still wonder what all that means financially for Facebook and the other social networking powerhouses. Yes, they have the eyeballs and the traffic, but how do they make money off of that? When I go to Facebook, I am socializing or communicating or observing human behavior, not looking for a deal on an old couch or looking to click on ads — no matter how relevant they might be. These new-fangled social networks don’t seem to be that far removed from the old personal home pages or earlier networks such as LiveJournal or Friendster that came before them. Wringing money out of these high-traffic, low e-commerce networks still is a challenge because we’re in a different mindset when we search social networks than when we search on Google for a product or service.

    There’s also the nagging problem I have with all the time I’ve spent on LinkedIn and Facebook lately: What’s in it for me? I feel like most of my time is spent dealing with friend requests, or job referrals, or questions coming from other folks. I’m happy to help them out, but I never use the networks for my own needs. Is that my own failing, my own habit of doing those things in other ways, or a failing of the social networks themselves in not equaling out the karma we put in and get back?

    What do you think? If you are spending more time on social networking sites now, especially Facebook, explain why that is. If you are put off by social networks, tell us why. Do you give and get from social networks, or is there an inequality there? What positives and negatives do you see in social networks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: There have been some great additions to this discussion topic. First up, NYU professor and NewAssignment.net founder Jay Rosen writes a long note on his Facebook profile about Facebook — and only readable by his “friends” on Facebook. But he said it was OK to quote him on my blog so here’s some of what he said in the eloquent note:

    When I look at my list of friends on Facebook they are a kind of social network; I guess some would say a professional network — ‘contacts,’ mixed with a bunch of personal pals who are also from that network. But that’s not my idea for how Facebook can work for me. I see the 144 Facebook friends I have now as friends of my ideas, and possible participants in my various intellectual projects (schemes) by which I mean people who can help me improve them, in some cases develop them, perhaps at times spread them, and of course drop them when they are wrong turns.

    At the same time, their ideas and projects are things I have a stake in, and so under the principle of mutuality I will interact with you on Faceblook as a friend of your ideas, as I am doing now by taking up a question Mark Glaser posed at his site, MediaShift, where I have also guest posted.

    That was my starter notion when I started with Facebook. Then I look at the tool itself, the platform, and rather than ask what it is, or what it has, I am trying to figure out whether Facebook itself, properly used, can be a friend to my ideas.

    One of those ideas is to create a Facebook group or connection for people interested in doing crowdsourcing work on one story idea:

    Use it to collect a closed network of friends for an investigation a single reporter is running. Network together ‘friends of the story…” for purposes of discussion and information exchange. Or introduce friends of a debate to the debate — and to each other, and to new friends the debate has. Something like that might work.

    It could be an interesting way to boost the ideas germinating at NewAssignment.net, an experiment in open source journalism. With the addition of profiles and social networking at a site such as USAToday.com, perhaps more people will make the link between news stories and reader participation, feedback and citizen journalism.

    Another important point I forgot to take up in this post is the fact that surfing through my Facebook “friends” brought me to some pretty personal photos of people I knew only in a more formal business sense. That mixing of business and personal can spell trouble for people who don’t want those worlds colliding. Tish Grier mentions that in an excellent comment here:

    From what I heard, many in the tech world are banking on Facebook replacing LinkedIn for business networking — and that’s the #1 reason many are migrating to Facebook…But Facebook for job networking is problematic — mostly because the amount of personal information on a Facebook profile — which, for the most part, is none of an employer’s business.

    Tagged: facebook myspace social networking

    13 responses to “Social Media Runs on ‘Friend’ Power”

    1. Mark,

      Thanks for the post. It’s funny how much buzz Facebook has generated over the past several days. Why now, I wonder.

      To your question: What can Facebook do for me? It puts you in contact with trusted information because it’s coming from people you trust (to varying degrees, judging by your relatively capricious friending habits). When you need to know something, you can go to them and get it.

      What kind of car should I buy? Where should I go on vacation? Where can I get a job?

      Or, this more common and (I would argue) useful question: What new and interesting things should I be reading?

      On Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” yesterday, Jeff Jarvis talked about how he uses Facebook’s news feed feature. It tells him about changes in his friends’ lives, including what things they’re reading (and looking at and doing and so on). This is the same reason so many people find value in social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us.

      I come to MediaShift because I trust you and the things you say. If we become friends (or linked on del.icio.us) I will have an easy way of keeping an eye on the things you’re reading (and looking at and doing and so on). I’ll look you up.

      Despite my making this argument (and being a 23-year-old), I don’t use Facebook very often. Hmm. Looking at what I’ve just written, though, I think that must be my fault.

      Thanks again for your work, Mark.

      Anyone have another take on this? Other uses? Problems with my suggestion?


    2. Chad D. says:

      If you’re willing to associate your brand with drunk teenagers, then I say go for it. If you’re truly interested in leveraging a BUSINESS only platform with Facebook-like features designed with only BUSINESS in mind, you should check out Fast Pitch! (www.fastpitchnetworking.com).

      Here’s a comparison chart outlining the differences between the largest online business networks (including LinkedIn). I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what is available to you.


    3. Tish Grier says:

      Hey Mark….

      As I mentioned in the comments on another post on your site, there was lots of discussion on Facebook at Supernova2007….and the reasons for why some non-college age people keep Facebook profiles are an interesting point–and believe it or not, it has to do with busness/job networking.

      From what I heard, many in the tech world are banking on Facebook replacing LinkedIn for business networking–and that’s the #1 reason many are migrating to Facebook. (a recent conversation on Chris Brogan’s blog questioned why we can’t upload photos to LinkedIn…) But Facebook for job networking is problematic–mostly because the amount of personal information on a Facebook profile–which, for the most part, is none of an employer’s business.

      Yet, there’s nothing stopping employers from doing a google search and finding out anything personal they want, including photos. Google search goes well beyond what the average legal background check allows, and, quite frankly, is a way for employers to get around being sued for asking personal questions in an interview.

      Employers are getting way too nosy–and too many people in high places are unconcerned about it….oddly…

      So, while many in the tech industry are rather joyous about Facebook as a job-networking tool–which is why many of the new middle-aged have joined–if people wake up, there may be a whole slew of suits against employers who use it for that purpose.

      I continue to find it very odd that we’re so willing to give up information that former generations knew could–and would in many cases–lead to discrimination, esp. for women. Yet this may be, in part, a result of the simple fact that online, and places like Facebook in general, are populated by a relatively small, homogenous group of people who, in some respects, feel they’re beyond discrimination. But look at the numbers of women who are gainfully employed–or even just have a voice–in these spaces and you’ll see that ain’t quite the case. Discrimination is still a problem out here….and it could get worse if personal info like on Facebook becomes the norm for job networking.

    4. Myspace, Facebook, Bebo, secondlife, simply checking one’s email inbox. It all takes TIME.
      In traditional print Time pressure has been a root cause of decline. Is there too much choice? Will over-choice and time pressure reduce growth?

    5. As a forty-something, I joined Facebook because my twenty-something niece invited me. As a long-time denizen of the Web, I don’t have too many issues about placing personal information online, but I previously hadn’t had much sustained interest in the social networks.

      My usage on Facebook has increased steadily, though, as it has evolved to become an effective short-hand way of keeping up with friends and family I care about but whom I wouldn’t necessarily contact directly on a regular basis. The Facebook News Feed to my surprise effectively maintains a sense of connection to their daily lives. The social component really works!

    6. Maz Hardey says:

      the issues that you raise about social networking, membership and in particular friendship are really interesting. What fascinates me most is how people manage information across an array of sites, profiles and media appendages. Gone are the days when once we would reach someone via just a landline phone number. Now we SKYPE, poke, linkin, wallpost, tag etc one another all in a bid to ‘stay in touch’ and perhaps more importantly to be SEEN to be in touch.

      The future of this kind of networking should not be seen as anything that is too far removed from the kinds of processes, obligations, expectations and emotional bonds that we have made in the past. Now we just have more means than ever before to connect and interact with one another. Society still continues to be informed by the types of bonds that we share, and sense of ‘community’ felt. To borrow the work of one social theorists, Etzioni , these contemporary socibilities are ‘part of a pluralistic web of communities. People are, as one and the same time, members of several communities’.

      What has emerged from these kinds of associated relations is the different ways that we choose to manage our social interactions and some may say ‘obligations’. Social capital has become an important quality of the relationships that we experience.

      To sum up as Putman reminds us ‘social capital is about networks, and the Net is the network to all ends’… clever man that Putman!

    7. Elisabeth Neville says:

      I find that I am spending more time in my “social networks” than originally when i signed up for LinkedIn and Facebook. Professionally, I think there were maybe the first 5 people from my immediate office. Then it grew to many of the other companies I used to work in. Now I am using it as a vehicle for a career change after my graduate program.

      Though, I do find myself saying no to a lot of “friends” that I just do not recognize. And it is interesting in LinkedIn they use “you are someone I trust…” Well, I am beginning to feel that I do not trust as many people as I am “expected to.”

      Facebook, I actually was contacted by a person from my high school..and it was interesting as I have not seen or heard from him in over 20 years. But, Is there any other person I would invite into my circle, possibly ONLY those I know, but then couldn’t I also just pick up the phone?

    8. Tony Armelin says:

      I wish Facebook had a better way for each user to apply some kind of rating on each friend to indicate the strength of the relationship– something descriptive like:

      1) “referred to me by___ “‘
      2) “I was referred by___ “;
      3) “I’m a fan”;
      4) “Fan of me”;
      5) “Appears we’re mutual fans”;
      6) “Sharing first thoughts/ideas”;
      7) “Completed first engagement”;

      The user could have control over how much others see of this; would be helpful in prioritizing friends and networks for more refined outreach…

    9. Anyone else seeing networking fatigue set in? This is when people are exhausted by all the different types of professional networking sites. David Churbuck of Lenovo mentioned it in his blog (he calls it “LinkedIn Fatigue) and a blogger named Derek Sorensen (http://dereksorensen.com/?p=28) has even come across an app called Notworking that measures the amount of money your losing by networking instead of actually working.

      I think were starting to see a bit of a reaction to general networking sites for professionals. Sure you can collect a lot of pelts and show off how many people you are connected to but how many of those people are of any real use to you professionally? (Full disclosure: I work for http://www.spoke.com, a site that tries to connect business people in a much more focused way in our case B2B sales, marketers and HR/recruiters. )

      In addition to Spoke, other sites have begun to spring up built around the idea of building networks that go deeper within a field or specialty instead of connecting with everyone on the planet. Theres one for lawyers but Ive forgotten the URL and Dow Jones has set up a networking site focused on the financial set at Market Watch.

    10. Ivo says:

      One problem is if someone of your friends decide he want to bag you or worst- your friends it is very hard to stop him from doing so.

      And there is also the ridicules hobby of people collecting 500+ “friends” and professional contacts which means they don’t have any real friends these are people who knows them or about them or liked their profile photo… what the hell?!

      I use this sight to get to know people that have common interest but if you have you’re friends nagging your other friends than you are in a problem.

      There are a lot of people using the same network for many reasons. Be sure your friends don’t nag your other friends.

    11. Elisabeth Neville ):
      I agree that People can have some good Business Networking from These Social Networking Sites, and Elisabeth Neville is great exapmple of doing Business Or Business Conection with Social networking!
      If you’re looking for friends you can find then, if your looking for Business Networking, you will Find Business Networking on these Social Networking sites!
      It’s all about what you’re looking for!

    12. Kristen says:

      Great article Mark! I have to admit I was totally with you about how useful vs. entertaining Facebook and LinkedIn really are. Despite this I decided to make more of an effort using LinkedIn in the past few weeks. In less that 3 weeks I have had an unsolicited offer for a job interview and have been offered the potential of a business partnership. Now I’m a convert! :)

    13. Facebook seems to be dominating the social networks at this time although twitter is definitely competing with them. My guess is both will start having people lose interest when the next greatest thing comes out.

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