At Vanilla, we spend a lot of time thinking about how communities grow and evolve. It's something that we try to help our customers with every day, and we are constantly looking to competitors of all sizes to see what works and what doesn't. Lately I've been thinking a lot of the side effects of what makes a community grow.
Take Facebook. Obviously there are many reasons why Facebook has exploded with contributors, but arguably the biggest reason for this growth is the way they structure friendships. During Facebook's early days, they noticed that a new user was more likely to continue contributing to Facebook if they had 10 or more friends. So, their goal became to ensure that friend discovery was paramount, and that in a user's first visit they could quickly and easily get up to 10 friends. The powerful side effect of this method is that immediately the users have content that, while they might not be interested in the content itself, they were certainly interested in the people who were posting it. The content we post online gives others insight into what our interests are, and as such, who we are. It gives others the opportunity to identify elements that strike a chord within - elements that they can use to respond to and help strengthen the relationships they have with others.
So, I join Facebook. Immediately I am surrounded with people I know (or have known) and I'm discovering all kinds of things about them. I see that they've already posted pictures with me in them, maybe pictures I've never seen before. I'm engaged. I stay engaged. I go back every day. My friend's list grows. At current standing I have 277 friends. I've been on Facebook for over 4 years.
4 years, 277 friends.
At Facebook, I'm essentially in a forum with fewer than 300 other members. Sure, there are bazillions of users on Facebook, but I'm not related to them. I might see a tiny sliver of the content they post if it gets liked or promoted by my friend group, but that's it. Essentially I'm in a <300 member forum that has higher engagement than a traditional forum, but not on any particular topic.
How much time to you spend on user profile pages in forums today? I'd be willing to bet that it's very little. You probably don't even visit your own. But on Facebook we are always going into other people's profiles to look for things. It isn't because forum profile pages aren't "good". It's because on Facebook you're digging for information about people, while on forums you're digging for information. Period. If you think about it that way, Facebook is a forum's best friend: it is essentially a peer-review system, allowing your friends to curate what's awesome on the web so you can consume it.
Have you ever noticed that internet memes sweeping the web almost never originate in Facebook? Where do they come from? Forums. Places like 4chan (and now canv.as), Reddit, Penny Arcade, PB Nation, Mac Rumors, etc.
When you take a group of people and rally them around a subject, amazing things begin to happen. It happens every day that a groundswell of activity originating in niche communities built by individuals with powerful voices can affect the world. And here is the powerful weakness of Facebook: In it's ingenious strategy for growth, they've kneecapped themselves from ever being a source for this type of community power.
I believe it is one of the many reasons why discussion forum-based communities continue to flourish in spite of the growth of social networks. I see Facebook attempt to mimic this type of power and continue to miss the mark (no pun intended). It's the piece that we are harnessing at Vanilla: empowering strangers to rally around a topic and decide what's good and what's bad. Giving them the power to promote that great content and the great users who contribute it.