I read an article today: How Facebook quickly took over the Web. Like many online news articles, the headline was not indicative of the content. In the second paragraph, the writer asked: “But how did it achieve its grip on the global market?”, provided a link to another article, and then left that question behind. The rest of the article is mainly a list of numbers and dates about Facebook’s growth and does nothing to answer the question.
The linked “article” was more like a blog entry, and also didn’t attempt to say why or how Facebook became so popular. Like the first one, it just listed numbers to show that Facebook is indeed popular.
So the questions remain. What happened? Why did the other sites fade away? What is it about people’s previous internet experiences that made the world ready for Facebook’s appearance on the internet? What did Facebook do that the others didn’t do? Or what pitfalls did Facebook avoid that the other sites fell into?
(Disclaimer: It’s well-known that I don’t like Facebook, and that I quit the site about two years ago after using it on and off for about two years. More on why I quit. I don’t mean this entry as another bashing of Facebook, but rather a look into why it works for so many people despite its problems.)
It’s a Mini-Internet
While this is one reason I don’t like Facebook, I think it’s one of the reasons that so many other people gravitated toward it, including youth, young adults, and older people. In many ways, Facebook is similar to the rest of the internet, except it’s all combined into one place.
People had grown tired of bookmark (“favorites” in Internet Explorer) lists that were weighty and difficult to manage. They didn’t want to visit two dozen different sites every day to check messages, view photos, read about family activities, watch videos, get the news, and more. Folks were also frustrated with remembering user IDs and passwords for all those sites.
With Facebook, you just need one password. Everything is there for you.
Instead of checking a dozen different blogs, all your friends and family have updated right on Facebook. Instead of visiting a variety of photo-sharing websites, just go to Facebook.
They were willing to sacrifice the higher-quality photos you could see on other photo sites, the better layouts for blogging that you could get on blogging sites, the higher quality and more in-depth news you could get on news websites, and so on, because Facebook brought it all together.
It already seemed popular
Somehow — and this defies the rules of logic and statistics — somehow, when most people first heard of Facebook, it was already being used by everyone else. As each person signed in for the first time, they were surprised at how many of their friends and family members were already there.
This was partly due to Facebook’s early history as a student-only website, a walled city of sorts. So by the time it became available to the general public, there were already many hundreds of thousands of users.
Consistent Interface (UI)
Unlike some previous sites (MySpace, for example), Facebook’s menu pretty much looked the same on every page. MySpace had allowed its users to add themes and codes to their pages, changing the fonts and even mouse pointer icons. The layouts got whacky and the links were hard to read. Sometimes you’d get to a page and lose the ability to navigate further. The only solution was to get out.
Facebook avoided that level of personalization, so everyone who came to the site saw basically the same thing. And no matter whose pages you visited, it was pretty simple to keep navigating or to get back where you started.
(When I was a member, it seemed that the UI changed frequently and unnecessarily, but when it changed, it was still consistent across the entire site.)
People Don’t Read TOS Agreements
I’m one of those rare people who reads Terms Of Service agreements, or at least scans through them looking for red flags. So it was apparent to me early on that Facebook’s TOS was a little scarier than those of other sites. For one thing, they made it pretty clear than any content (pictures, videos, etc.) you uploaded was free for them to use in advertising, and that the site had a license to pretty much use it as long as they wanted for any reason they wanted. Most other sites don’t include that type of language in the TOS.
But people don’t read the TOS agreements for sites they join, so no one was put off by this, even after several news stories made it fairly well-known. By that time, people were invested heavily in the site.
No Effort Is Required
With Facebook, all you had to do is join.
This is in contrast to, say, blogging sites, where you pretty much had to build a blog and type in it if you wanted people to interact with you. Most people won’t go through that effort. Most people won’t buy server space to host files for their own website, or buy a domain name.
Much like a blog, or Twitter, Facebook is all about you. You get to say what you want to say, be the center of attention, fill out your profile, express your opinions, and so on.
I’ve known several people who stayed on Facebook solely so they could keep up with the goings-on in other people’s lives. If they quit (like I did), they’ll feel like they’re missing out on something. It’s real, I assure you. My life is filled with a lack of family news because they’ve already posted it on Facebook and it never trickled out into the rest of the internet, so I have no idea what they’re up to.
It’s Like a Club
It may not feel that great to be in the club, but it’s better than what it feels like to be out of the club.
People Are Lazy
On a lot of other sites, if you wanted people to know you’d seen their post or picture, you had to leave a comment. Which meant you had to think of something to say. Not on Facebook. Just click the ‘Like’ button. Then they know you were there, at least for a split-second.
It’s difficult to find a TV commercial or movie poster or even a restaurant menu without a “Like Us On Facebook” stuck in there somewhere. I even saw a local carwash with an old-fashioned hand-lettered marquee sign that said “Like Us On Facebook”.
This didn’t help Facebook become popular in the first place, but it’s assuring that the site will stay in people’s minds for years to come.
By contrast, many other sites seem full of rude and argumentative people. Web forums are full of trolls and confrontations. Arguments last for years, unless someone invokes Godwin’s law. Comment sections under news articles always devolve into hate speech or name-calling sessions.
On Facebook, you don’t have to deal with people like that. You can connect with the people you want and ignore the people that bother you.
If I’ve missed something, feel free to let me know in the comment section below.