Building a community — will the real Mrs. Del Toro please stand up?

April 20th, 2010 by Grace Meng

As I discussed in my last post, having real profiles can really change the dynamic in an online community.  Yelp, which has more or less encourages Yelpers to use real identities, has created a community where people really care what other Yelpers think of them.  In contrast, Wikipedians care about the work others are doing, but they’re not so invested impressing other Wikipedians with their taste in music or food.  Yelp and Wikipedia have some similar incentives for people to create good stuff, like increased status and privileges, but Yelp feels like a social network while Wikipedia does not.

So how does the power of real profiles play out within Facebook, which is a social network and nothing else?  How do people’s concerns about their reputations play out when there are no reviews to write or encyclopedia entries to edit?  And how does Facebook in this context encourage people to create content?

(MySpace is a social network as well, but it’s so different from Facebook that I’m going to address it in a separate post.)

Facebook cares even more than Yelp about having real people.

Poor Peowtie, her Facebook account's been disabled.

While Yelp encourages people to use real first names and last initials and a real photo, Facebook requires it.  The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states, along with other rules:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not use your personal profile for your own commercial gain (such as selling your status update to an advertiser).
  3. You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.
  4. You will not use Facebook if you are a convicted sex offender.
  5. You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
  6. You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.
  7. You will not transfer your account to anyone without first getting our written permission.
  8. If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user’s actual name).

Although we all know people who’ve sneaked through with a profile based on the name of a pet or a nickname, Facebook is diligent enough that it was very difficult for Caitlin Batman, Tim Six, Becky Super, and others with unusual names to sign up for an account.  My friend’s Peowtie Del Toro account, which she opened in October 2007, was disabled just this year.  (The above is a mock-up as it is completely inaccessible to her now.)

Facebook doesn’t create a product, like business reviews or an encyclopedia, separate from its social network.  Its product is essentially human relationships, to the extent that they can be captured through status updates, photos uploaded, articles linked, and virtual gifts/pokes sent.  For all the personal detail Yelpers put into their reviews, it doesn’t compare to how personal content is on Facebook.

As real people, Facebook members are hyper-aware of their reputations.

The fact that they are creating content that is solely about their lives means that Facebook users care even more about the way that content affects their reputations.  It’s not just about whether they write witty Yelp reviews or edit correctly on Wikipedia — it’s about who they are. As much as they horrify middle-aged adults, the kids who post drunken photos of themselves on Facebook do care about their reputations.  It’s just that at that moment in their lives, it’s more important that they project that image than a more staid, responsible one. Some people want to be the kind of people who have 900 Facebook friends; other people want equally strongly to be the kind of people who have 50.  Some people want their friends to know they made pickles with seasonal ramps that weekend; other people want their friends to know they were watching football.

And despite the fact that Facebook has become a symbol of our over-sharing culture, Facebook wants us to share even more.  The more we share, the more it can make in advertising.  The more we share, the more valuable its data becomes.

But Facebook can’t give you a gold star for being a cool person…

Because people on Facebook are creating content about themselves, Facebook can’t use the same incentive systems used by Yelp or Wikipedia.  Yelp can promote good reviewers to the Yelp Elite Squad, Wikipedia can give privileges to reliable editors, but it would be laughable for Facebook to create a Facebook Elite Squad.  Imagine if Facebook deemed some users’ vacation photos better than others, or gave karma points like Slashdot to those whose status updates were wittiest.

Facebook, however, can use people’s concerns about their reputations to motivate and promote activity.  There are ways for users to give each other the Facebook equivalent of badges, stars, and compliments: virtual gifts and “pokes.”

Facebook’s ways of motivating activity are generally more subtle.  Facebook doesn’t just ask people to share — it asks people to respond.  I once had a friend ask me why I never commented on her status updates.  She clearly cares whether people respond to what she says.  It’s part of why she uses Facebook.  If Facebook didn’t allow people to comment on each other’s status updates and posts, I imagine the level of activity would rapidly decrease.

Facebook’s “like” button serves an interesting purpose in this context.  Like Yelp’s “useful, funny or cool,” it lets people respond to their friends without having to write out an actual sentence.  It’s equivalent to a nod or sympathetic “uh-huh” offline — it’s a way to show you’re paying attention.

But of course, Facebook isn’t really satisfied with the level of activity currently happening.  Everyday, I’m given suggestions, not only for new friends but ways in which I could interact with existing ones.

I’m curious how many people actually see this and then go out and write on the wall of that elementary school friend who they haven’t communicated with since they accepted the friend request.  (In my case, I feel like it’s always telling me to reach out to Alex Selkirk, who I see almost everyday.)

It’ll be interesting to see what else Facebook tries as it works to monetize itself.  I don’t see how it can ever give out gold stars or badges or create elite classes within Facebook.  Not only would it be weird to rate a person for being a person, it would be difficult to come up with an incentive structure that appeals to its 400 million registered users.  Being a member of some Elite Squad, having karma points, being the Mayor of a local business as FourSquare does, might be appealing to some people.  It definitely won’t be appealing to all of them.

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