Why Facebook Succeeded

Facebook’s IPO filing has reinitiated the debate over why Facebook has been so successful. You should ignore everything you hear about the attractiveness of its features or the intelligence of its “business model.” That’s all bull and post-hoc rationalization. Facebook’s success is attributable to a few much broader factors:

1. The enormous economies of scale inherent to all networking platforms: Social networking sites are the greatest natural monopolies known to man. The main, if not the only, reason I am on Facebook is that everybody else is on Facebook too. And the reason everybody else is on it is that everybody else is on it, too. Since the attractiveness of a social-networking site to any prospective member is a function of that site’s popularity, it is predictable that there should be one hegemonic social-networking site, and that whichever social networking site happened to get there first would dominate the market more or less indefinitely.

This is the most important fact about Facebook today and its future. But it just suspends the really difficult question, how did Facebook happen to get there first?

2. Timing: Facebook was lucky enough to premier at just about the time that it became broadly accepted that all college campuses and coffee shops would have wireless internet, that taking more than 2 hours to respond to an email was a slight, etc., etc.

3. Status hierarchies: Facebook started at Harvard, then extended to a few select Ivies, then to top-tier colleges more generally, then colleges as a whole, and then through high schools to the public. We moderns, whatever our pretensions, are still the status-obsessed pack animals we evolved to be over millions of years of hunting and gathering. In a world whose religion is meritocracy, elite universities are the fetish. Zuckerberg was pretty smart in only gradually and incrementally democratizing access to Facebook, such that, in the early stages, joining Facebook was always sort of aspirational. I remember my brother’s happiness when Facebook was first extended to Cornell (and, equally essentially, not to lesser universities), and my own when high schools could finally join. The key to Facebook’s initial catching-on was its use of our deep-rooted status-obsession.

4. American as global language: Just as English is globish, American is the global culture. The global networking site was destined to be the networking site that won America first. When I talk to my non-American friends, they occasionally mention superior social-networking platforms that had caught on in, say, Germany in 2005. But when the cosmopolitan set decided it wanted its social-networking to move easily over international borders, it knew it really had no choice but to switch to the American platform.

5. Myspace sucked: It had been the only serious alternative for the hegemonic social network, but it really screwed up. It was just so damn ugly. The only ‘feature’ of Facebook that I actually think is important is the limitation it imposes on users, which takes minor steps to shield them from their own stupidity, mildly tempering their efforts to embarrass themselves and make the whole site–and hence the whole user experience–hideous and noisy. One Important Fact about the Modern World is that cultural power lies with the youth. Facebook learned the lesson from myspace that, “a social network is like a high school-party — it’s over when the parents show up,” and wisely actively limited itself to the youth, by requiring a school affiliation, until it was already locked into a dominant position.

***

When Zuckerberg was a freshman at Harvard, he was a darn good programmer. Then, he enjoyed good timing, a position from which to make Facebook aspirational, an ability to learn from myspace’s enormously stupid mistakes, and other forms of good luck. Since then, he’s been coasting on the spectacular economies of scale inherent in social networking. I don’t think there was really much genius or wizardry besides.

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