"Facebook was not originally created to be a company," wrote founder Mark Zuckerberg in a letter this week. "Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do."
Those familiar with the story of Zuckerberg’s rapid rise from mischievous hacker to CEO of the globe’s most popular social network might find his claim a bit altruistic, but not unexpected.
The letter was just one part of Facebook’s official request to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in support of its bid to begin selling stock publicly. The entire filing is massive, and analysts have been combing through its 150 pages (not counting index and associated documents) for hints about Facebook’s market value and economic potential. Billions of dollars are at stake.
But the real measure of its long-term viability may not be lay in balance sheets and profit statements, but in the little bits of time some 840 million registered users spend every day updating their status, catching up with friends, or just "liking" something they’ve found on the web.
And so Facebook’s SEC filing begs the question: is it building "real value for the world," or is it little more than a website for selling ads and wasting time?
Support and companionship
"Facebook looks like a social good," says Rutgers University researcher Keith Hampton. "People who use Facebook tend to do better on average than other folks."
Hampton is the lead author of a new analysis, released by the Pew Internet Project, exploring how people actually use Facebook. Titled "Why most Facebook users get more than they give" the study tracked a sample of users over the course of a month, exploring patterns of use, behavior and interaction.
What they learned was in parts expected and surprising. "Facebook users are just busy," Hampton said.
"We see the majority of them are moderately active on any given day. But there’s a group of users, about 20 to 30 per cent, who are very active in doing a lot of different things. And it’s really interesting to see that those 20 or 30 per cent, on whatever metric we’re using, really drags along that group of other users, and makes them more involved."
These members, dubbed "power users" in the study, post, comment, like, friend and play on Facebook significantly more than most other users. And, consistent with previous studies, it’s these users that provide much of the "real value" that Facebook members experience. They’re the ones more likely to comment on you rather than the other way around. In other words, these are your friends who give more than they get: the ones who walk into a room and everyone notices.
All fine and well, in the digital sphere. But researchers constantly wonder whether the online "friend" experience has any relation to real world, flesh-and-blood experiences.
According to Keith Hampton, the line between cyber and life is becoming blurrier: "The overlap, and what we’ve found in the past, is that not many of these people are actual strangers. These are people you encounter in your everyday life, and our work shows that those people using Facebook a lot, they’re getting more social support, emotional support and companionship.
"They’re also more politically involved, and they tend to have more friends in the real world, and more diverse friends. We don’t see any tendency for people using Facebook, or really any Internet technology, to be more socially isolated, or more cut off from a diverse set of people, or even having fewer close relationships. We see the opposite."
So those who spend a lot of time online in social networks tend not to be of the classic, introverted dude-in-the-basement scenario. At least, on average.
Surprising as that may (or may not) be, there are what Hampton calls paradoxes in the study. For example, the finding that your Facebook friends, on average, have more friends than you do.
Af first glance, that finding seems mathematically impossible, in the long run. However, says Hampton, it’s really an expression of the asymmetric relationships people have in the real world.
In other words, if you think about it, it’s more likely you know someone who knows lots of people than someone who has a very small friendship base: "If you think about it, very few people are socially isolated; very few people have a very small number of friends. And naturally, those people show up in your friendship networks less often.
"But people who have a lot of friends, they show up a lot in your networks. And when you look at these averages, these people get counted more than once. So as it works, you see that your friends tend to have more friends than you, and the magnitude of this fact is real. So for the typical Facebook user, as they look out over their Facebook friends, their friends appear to have on average about twice as many friends as they do."
Other findings: women update their status significantly more often than men; people who are active online tend to be more politically active, and while your Facebook "friends" may have little connection with each other, users who are active – for example, "tagging" real-world photos of their friends – tend to have more robust real-world (or "offline") social networks as well.
It would seem, at least according to Hampton’s study, that by and large people who are more engaged in their offline social friend network are going to be more engaged in their online one as well. And this, frankly, should surprise no one.
'A success so far'
So, big shock: people who are popular in the real world tend to be popular in the online one as well. So what?
Despite the blurring of differences people may feel sharing a coffee with a friend at a cafe and sharing messages online on Facebook, there are, says Hampton, still real differences between our real-world experience and that online – particularly when it comes to friendships: "This is a very unique thing about Facebook and social networking websites, in that they provide networks that are persistent and pervasive in ways that we never had before.
"We used to go through life with various stages where we would lose friends – we would go off to college or start a new job. That’s no longer the case. These people stick with us forever, and we get these little tidbits of information about them on a regular basis on our Facebook feeds. That I think is very powerful, and it really reduces the separation between using this technology and what happens in what we call real life."
"Pervasive" is another term for "sticky" – one that Internet financial analysts use to describe how long a user stays on a website, and how often they come back, to evaluate its financial well-being. If Facebook is successful in keeping people "stuck" to its site and services, its financial future looks fairly bright.
The full report is available online at the Pew Internet and American Life Project.