Why Did Facebook & Twitter Succeed?

Facebook started in 2002, famously, in a dorm room. Twitter started in 2006 as a side project. As of 2015, Facebook has 1.5B Active Users and Twitter has 289M Active Users. Why did this happen? Why those networks? Why have they made it while so many others haven’t?

This was the rhetorical question I posed to my students a few weeks ago. We talk about “right place, right time” when it comes to the big two of social networks but there’s more to the story. It’s why Google+ as envisioned would have never become Facebook even if without the competition. It’s why we still don’t have a “Twitter killer” and why (as I’ll discuss in my follow-up post) Instagram is now the fastest growing social network.

What is a social network?

This may seem like a basic question but it’s important to start with this. A social network is NOT the platform. Rather it is the net of the connections and community that surrounds it. Success for a social network such as Facebook or Twitter stems from more than the need to attract users. They had to attract and/or build entire social networks to use and interact on their platforms.

The image is taken from a social network qualitative study done in the 1980s mapping out comparative strength of social network ties. Note the importance of kin and their inter-related nature. This was critical for Facebook.

The real value of Twitter and Facebook does not stem from the platform. It’s the people on the platform. Too often we get lost in the tech. Both Twitter and Facebook were started before the “app” hype. Both had clunky codes and Twitter even became known for the “fail whale” due to how often it appeared. The tech was essential but NOT sufficient- not even close.

Leading up to this course I asked my Facebook network the following question: “Why did you join Facebook/Twitter and why did you stay? Here’s a sample of what they said:

Note how well the reasons for joining Facebook maps onto the strong ties to the kin part of the social network image above. Also recall that Facebook started in the university community- a place designed to foster the rapid development of offline social networks. Twitter, by contrast, is a platform of purpose. It’s no coincidence that the “a-ha” moment sparking real Twitter adoption typically occurs around an event hashtag. This actually just occurred for two of my students through the #copa and #Eurocuphashtags. They had been struggling to get themselves into the platform and seeing the activity on those hashtags did the trick. This is a story I hear over and over.

Think about what your Twitter versus Facebook networks look like in terms of relationship source and depth. Need additional proof? Just think of what it means to unfollow versus unfriend.

So why does this matter? Sure it’s interesting from a geeky and intellectual perspective but as a marketer why should you care?

We need to understand the psychology of people acting within a social network and community in order to create strategies to get them to want to connect with our brand and share our branded content. This is why simply cross-posting content (as enticing as Hootsuite makes it) is a bad idea. That’s why your brand shouldn’t be on every platform. And, this is why, only a few social media apps can truly be called social networks (more about that in my next post).

Successful strategy is built based thinking through the psychology of the community. People will be attracted to and interact with your content depending on their reasons for being on that network. This impacts everything from content strategy to influencer marketing.

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