Facebook launched its open platform in late May, preceded and followed by a lot of buzz. As a (late) early adopter, I launched a profile several weeks ago. I uploaded my contacts and found many professional friends were already on Facebook. People who joined after me did the same thing, and added me as a friend. Today I have 140 friends on Facebook, and growing. I've told my team to get on Facebook and introduced colleagues to Facebook. I suppose I'm an evangelist right now, encouraging people to get on Facebook to, if nothing else, experience a turning point in social networking.
In the ‘early days' I was on Ryze, Orkut and eCademy, but I wasn't very active. Several years ago, I got on LinkedIn. Its superior interface and quality of professional members hooked me. I've focused my time there to reconnect with colleagues, find employees, and answer questions. I've amassed hundreds of (mostly relevant) contacts. LinkedIn is a superior tool for finding people with relevant business connections or experiences.
Now that Facebook is open, how will the landscape of these online networks be affected? For professionals on both networks, which will garner more care and feeding? How will each network evolve, especially after LinkedIn's announcement of opening its platform to application developers?
My prediction is LinkedIn will remain as a business network. It is suited to accomplish tasks: hire people, get answers, find experts/contractors and maintain professional contacts.
At the same time, despite its heritage being rooted in fun and entertainment for students, I foresee Facebook quickly moving closer to the business world and expanding its share of the social networking participation pie.
Two factors are at the helm of Facebook's ship steering towards business users:
Facebook is Addictive
Do you have addictions that take you away from what you're doing? Maybe it's checking your blackberry, checking ESPN.com for scores, or checking on your blog traffic stats. Twitter, a micro-blogging service, is serving some unfilled need for people to give and receive hourly updates of what each other are doing. Facebook pulls its members back into its site for similar reasons.
Once logged in, on your home page and profile, you are shown up to the minute updates for what your Facebook friends are doing on the network. They are joining groups, adding friends, adding applications, sending gifts, updating their status, adding avatars, adding photos, adding videos, updating work info, posting questions, and it goes on. In fact, it's sort of like Twitter in you get implicit updates from the actions your Facebook friends take. As I write this mid-day on a Sunday there were 10 activities displayed on my home page. Today David Berkowitz added the “I Watch Entourage” application. David's a busy guy…but maybe I should check out the show. Denise Court added the “Job Finder” application. She works for an online recruiting site and is probably experimenting with related widgets for her business.
Some of these updates are meaningless, but it is fleetingly entertaining and informative, and that's enough to pull me back in. The fascination is occasionally finding a worthwhile widget, contact, or group that people you trust found. Every login is like panning for gold, except I'm watching hundreds of people do the panning and grabbing the gold they find. The activity and connections occurring between people, applications and groups is exponential. As more applications, widgets and contacts come into the platform, the growth will continue.
With LinkedIn I see questions my friends posted, jobs they're hiring for, and work info they've updated. It's less dynamic and I visit it less often. It is like a tool, there when I need to accomplish a task. However, there's nothing stopping Facebook application developers from emulating these tools, and blending this into the addictive updates on the Facebook profile.
Put simply, you and I are more likely to invest our time, contributions and contacts to the site where we WANT to spend the most time. The dynamic, fun nature of Facebook helps them become addictive and therefore, more worthy of our attention investment.
Facebook Has an "Open" Brand
LinkedIn recently announced it too will open up its platform, allowing developers to create applications and widgets. What kind of applications will be created? Will they create fun and entertainment applications for LinkedIn? Unlikely. LinkedIn socially-enables business tasks, and its audience and positioning will more likely attract developers to create more business-related applications.
Facebook was, and still is, the place for college students. When I was at Dell, I ran University marketing. The Facebook sales team pitched us to run ads on the network. I asked, “What do people do on Facebook?” I wanted to know if member activities on the site had anything to do with considering new technology. The sales team explained a typical Facebook male student might be sitting across the classroom from a girl and would want to ‘connect' with her. He would look up her profile and try to enhance his own to appear desirable, because after he meets her in real life the first thing she is going to do is look his virtual persona up on Facebook. It wasn't clear to me how 2GB or RAM, graphics card and a flat panel directly helped that lonely teenager in his quest for female companionship.
If that's what Facebook was then, and still is now, why are professionals getting on Facebook? I'm a middle-aged father of two with a ‘distinguished' receding hairline. What am I doing on here?
I believe Facebook is well-suited to evolve as a place to create business connections and accomplish business tasks. It's slightly tricky for Facebook because they don't want to scare away the edgy school crowd, the source of most traffic and advertising impressions right now. The college elite pulls in the college mainstream and college students pull in the high schoolers. Attracting business people and scaring students away is a zero sum game.
The Facebook brand has three evolutionary advantages:
First, nothing they've done to their platform (so far) takes away from the experience for students, it only enhances their experience. Facebook started with college students who aspire and ultimately grow into business. College students will welcome applications and connections related to their career, such as job hunting and career networking. They will continue to use Facebook in college as long as these new business contacts and applications don't pollute their experience of ‘connecting' with their future spouse (or not)!
Second, Facebook's brand can more easily evolve to a universal brand, like eBay, with pockets of groups and networks. If Facebook stood as a directory of student profiles a year ago, it could stand for an open ‘uber' networking brand a year from now. It will enable someone like me to make applications and content visible or hidden based on group and contact filters. With my profile, it's not likely I'll be ‘hooking up' to any college profiles or vice versa (unless I need to find an Intern, which of course will be a male intern if my wife is reading this!)
Finally, having one network that allows me to share with business colleagues the way I do with friends is favorable. After all, my network of business friends, are also personal friends that I trust. For students, college friends turn into colleagues. For me, the people I trust are people I got to know throughout my career. Some of the personal information shared through Facebook applications is relevant with these hybrid contacts. I want find out what books mentors are reading, what movies co-workers have seen, where colleagues vacation, and what products my employees recommend.
Social networking is an ecosystem that can help connect people to fulfill personal, professional and corporate objectives. LinkedIn has built a formidable reputation for becoming the professional network that helps accomplish business tasks. Now, with its open platform, it is easier to see how Facebook has advantages to migrate into this market. In fact, Facebook may have a more flexible brand to expand on its student audience with its addictive content system to keep users coming back and a growing army of developers to keep this going. The answer to each of their future success depends on how they will adapt to each other and suit the needs of their target audience.