Facebook has reached its tipping point as a social epidemic, even as it is helping other products, services and ideas reach their tipping points.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell identifies elements necessary to create a social epidemic:
- Salesmen, and
- The Stickiness Factor.
Chip and Dan Heath do a fine job of explaining, in Made to Stick, how to increase the “stickiness” of your ideas.
Mavens are the “thought leaders” who help set the agenda for fashion, technology or other cultural trends. People value their judgments, but without connectors, the maven’s opinions wouldn’t travel nearly as quickly.
When a maven with a sticky idea meets a Connector, it’s magic. Connectors are those people who just seem to know everybody, and when they get a sticky idea from a maven, they pass it on to almost everyone they meet. And Salesmen help encourage the reluctant to give it a try.
Which leads me to my point: with Facebook, by its design, everyone becomes a connector, and many become salesmen.
If the idea isn’t sticky, no amount of connection will cause it to spread. But because of the following elements in Facebook, a somewhat sticky concept can travel quickly.
- News Feed – This feature, which you access by hitting the big FACEBOOK icon at the top left of the page, share highlights of your friends’ activities – and shares yours with them. This is how I found out that Jeremiah Owyang had added the Cities I’ve Visited application, for instance, which caused me to install it myself. That put it both in my Mini-Feed (see below) and in the News Feed of all of my friends. When they added it, the cycle continued. Cities I’ve Visited now has 789,000 users.
- The Mini-Feed – this is on your profile page, and essentially lists the last several things you have done in Facebook. While the News Feed only has selected highlights of your friends’ activities, the mini-feed is more complete.
- The Groups link – When you click this in the left navigation, you see a two-panel display. On the left are groups your friends have recently joined. On the right are the groups to which you belong that have been recently updated. If my friends have recently joined a group, I’m likely to check it out. If I join, the cascade continues.
- Applications – When I wanted to upload a video, I had to install the Facebook Video application. When my friends see the thumbnail and decide to click to watch, if they haven’t installed the application they are prompted to do so. That’s why Facebook Video has 5.9 million users.
Other Facebook applications explicitly start by prompting you to invite your friends to try it. In the long run I don’t think this is going to be acceptable, especially those that preselect all your friends to receive invitations. This borders on Plaxoesque spamming.
Gladwell’s book talks about the optimum group size, and how people can’t maintain relationships in a group of more than about 150. I agree (I know Malcolm will be so relieved to hear that!), but I think Facebook dramatically ramps up the number of effective connections a person can have.
Just as patient sharing sites like CarePages or CaringBridge have been used to help families of hospitalized patients stay in touch with a broader community to give condition updates, Facebook lets you easily poke or send messages to friends and post status updates that they can check when they think of it. It puts their updates in your path, and yours in theirs. It takes the friction out of staying connected.
Which is why Facebook itself has reached The Tipping Point. With about 90 percent of college students on board, it has serious critical mass in a demographic that’s important for many businesses and organizations. For instance, David’s Bridal has found that people spend more money in the five years after their marriage than they do in any other five year period of their lives, and that it almost always starts with the purchase of a wedding dress. This has opened up huge opportunities for cross-selling honeymoon trips, banking and mortgage services and other products and services one wouldn’t immediately think of as being wedding-related. They call it life-stage marketing.
With its supermajority of the college-educated crowd, Facebook is even a step ahead of David’s Bridal in life-stage marketing, because most marriages happen during or after college.
And with the momentum Facebook now reportedly has, with well over 30 million members and adding 1.2 million a week, most of whom are in the 25-49 age group, this is an epidemic that has tipped and for which there doesn’t appear to be a vaccine.