Facebook and Information Finding

For several years I taught a course in information law and policy for a Master’s program at Columbia University. We always started the course with a short taste of the economics of information, using Shapiro’s and Varian’s Information Rules as the main reading for that unit.

One of the concepts I wanted the students to grasp was “lock in,” and I frequently referred to social-networking platforms as, possibly, an environment in which positive network externalities (the service got more valuable as more people signed on) were extremely strong but where the lock in to the service might nonetheless be fairly weak. The reason for this, I argued, was that switching costs to other networks were low. Or, perhaps more to the point, that the costs of joining a new service and duplicating your network of friends was so low that people would just participate in multiple venues, migrating over time — moving from, say, Friendster to MySpace, to Facebook, with a few Ning networks or the like along the way. What, I wanted them to ask, was the glue that would really make any particular network sticky?

Obviously, I underestimated the relative durability of Facebook — which was brand new during the time I was teaching that course — along with the sheer ubiquity that it would attain. But Facebook has also become sticky for reasons beyond sheer size and the value to the user of large networks. As the network has become more complex over time, and come to consist not only of linked profiles of individual people but of fan pages, groups, institutional presences, and applications, it has become stickier. The development of applications – including games – has also contributed to stickiness, as has the use of Facebook’s authentication (originally branded as Facebook Connect) for customized access to other content sites and web applications.

Most importantly, Facebook users have long used the platform as an information sharing and information seeking environment — passing links, news, and comments to their friend networks along with social updates. As Google was inspired by academic practices of footnote-mining and journal cross-references in its construction of automated web search, Facebook is borrowing practices more akin to dropping a marked-up xerox under a colleagues door. Except each service is extending these metaphors to much broader communities than ever used those particular analogs. Lock in works here because Facebook has the audience, so it gets the sharing/linking — and because it has the sharing/linking, it gets the audience.

Farhad Manjoo’s Slate article, “Facebook’s Plan to Take Over the Web,” gets, in the course of discussing the (relatively) new “like button,” at the heart of what I was missing about Facebook. Far from the “walled garden” that social-networking sites once represented, Facebook has become a portal to the world that renders the whole Web “social” — users of Facebook have begun in some respect to cede control over their experience of the universe online to their “friends.” Our social networks – or at least one particular social network – now plays an enormous role in directing our attention around the Web, and for many of us plays perhaps an even more central role in determining what online content we encounter than do search engines.

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