On Wednesday, Facebook "press guy" Chris Hughes was kind enough to share some of his time answering our questions and having a discussion about the direction of facebook over the coming months. What struck me was that alums are still going back to the site at high rates. For example, approximately 80% of alums have logged in during the past month. That is nice to know because it shows alums are not in any way leaving the site upon graduation. However, he did not have the statistics showing the number of page views by alums compared to when they were in school. My guess is that they may log in occassionally to see if they have any new messages, but barring new functionality to make the site more useful to them, alums traffic will simply continue to go down. As alums become more attached to their new physical environment -- that is, the new place they live outside of the school campus -- they meet new people and start new relationships, and thus do not rely on facebook as much for directory purposes. That can change with a corporate facebook.
We asked about how they intend to use their database for marketing purposes, and Chris made clear they are "not interested in taking users information and selling it or abusing it at all." Certainly down the road Facebook will have to consider how they can use this wealth of usage information to better target ads. That load of user data should grow even greater with the launch of picture sharing and a new form of blogging. Both are expected to come out over the next several months.
Chris says Facebook's traffic is already half that of MySpace despite having (this is the latest figure) 3.7 million users compared to MySpace's 27 million. (Interesting stat: at any given time, about 3% of the user base is logged in). Given Facebook is launching to the rest of US schools that offer .edu email addresses to students by next week (2,000 more schools), and Facebook's traffic will give or take double, taking it to MySpace's traffic level. On top of that, once picture sharing and a new form of blogging get implemented (both of which Chris says are in the works), traffic could further expand rapidly. Bottom line is there is no apparent leveling off of facebook traffic anytime soon. Beyond adding new features, facebook has the whole world to expand to, something which they have made clear is something they want to do carefully given cultural differences (look for Matt Marshall's comment on the bottom). When you throw in corporate facebooks, then facebook starts to look like they are on a trajectory for much higher user levels. With these kinds of innovations, with each passing day, facebook becomes a more and more expensive business to acquire.
Finally, a new feature will be coming out soon that will better identify how close you are to other members on the facebook. Chris declined to divulge details, but Orkut's explicit rating system comes to mind, as well as considering how many mutual friends you have. The point, Chris says, is to differentiate between the people you barely know with those you know very well. I think making that distinction is very important to the relevance of the friend and friend of friend connection information. After all, the threshold for facebook friends seems to be that you have either met in person once or talked in detail, but the new waves of freshman has shown that students will in fact "friend" people they have never met or ever talked to. More useful connection information is essential to facebook reinforcing its strength as a network based on the real world; that is, in the real world, we have friends to varying extents.
These friends at college we see fairly regularly, unlike social networks like LinkedIn, so the distinctions between levels of friendships is all the more acute because on the same college campus you have a complete span of friends from best to never met. On LinkedIn, those "contacts" you, by definition, rarely see because they are just "contacts." For example, one person may want to know about another person for a date, but finds that the six people who are mutual friends barely know that person. Some person may want to add another to a group project, but finds it difficult to find someone who really knows that other person. In the real world, most people only have a couple truly best friends that can provide the best insight. The fact that the average facebook user has roughly 50 friends makes that a heap too deep to search. Getting to the source of strength in these relationships is critical to expanding the usefulness of this network to yet another dimension, at least for while the students are on campus. Timmy and find Susy's best friends to ask about her, and vice versa. Cindy likes Mikey, and can see that two of Mikey's best friends are in her sociology class, so she sits next to them to get a scoop on Mikey. The possibilities are endless. In short, if executed as planned, I see facebook as making these relationships public and effectively weaving a whole new web of stickiness driven by value created through connecting people in dynamic ways beyond searching profiles for common interests. From there, corporate facebooks can carry the torch. Why does the usefulness of knowing the degrees of friendship among one another decrease upon leaving school? That is because suddenly the facebook does not reflect reality as much and suddenly you do not see hardly anyone you are friends with on facebook, so you lose touch: 95% of the people at your new work place are not on facebook, whereas 95% at school were on facebook before. It is that establishment as a standard within physical boundaries that makes facebook so powerful, and is ultimately why MySpace will likely face challenges unless it can ground its network in a similar way. Social network users may not be as fickle as the media thinks, but a scattered, uncontroled user base like MySpace is vulnerable to balkanized networks like facebook because of real world features like scoring relationships. MySpace (or should I say Fox?) should be concerned.
Finally, here is something I posted as a comment on a blog (the name or link I cannot remember) a few weeks ago:
The strength of facebook and the reason why users stay on the website longer than on MySpace is because it is effectively a comprehensive directory of students based on real world boundaries (each college campus), it is more useful because it has a higher "friends of friends" quotient than MySpace (meaning of all of a user's real life friends of friends, the percentage on facebook is higher than MySpace), and it has a sense of security that MySpace does not have (users from school A cannot view users from school B unless they are linked as friends and it requires a valid .edu email address to sign up). MySpace, in comparison, does not have that same grounding, which makes MySpace more vulnerable to being overtaken.