Facebook's Map Might Lead Advertisers Astray

Zuckerberg's Social Graph May Not Connect Online Networking With Offline Reality

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Sometime this year, Facebook, born as a place for college kids to preen, traded in its beery flush for a visionary glow. Credit its maturation to founder Mark Zuckerberg's prophecies of his brainchild as a grand map of social connections brimming with cultural and commercial applications -- the social graph. That oh-so-sexy futurecasting added to Facebook's current rapid membership growth among adults. And an ad-sales operation just now revving up and a PR dominance not seen since Google has resulted in enormous valuation -- $15 billion -- for a company that's not yet fully monetized itself.
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Photo: Paul Sakuma

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But despite the wave of Facebook evangelism, there are reasons to be skeptical about Mr. Zuckerberg's aspirations.

Mirroring real life
What the sandal-wearing wunderkind is essentially proposing is a new cultural role for the mass online social network that recasts what has been mainly a time waster as a useful and efficient communications tool for business and personal use. It's a vision that requires its users to take its conventions very, very seriously -- a strange concept to anyone acquainted with, say, the MySpace notion of networking, a motley group of associations, bands and hooking-up. In Mr. Zuckerberg's high-minded conception, one's collection of Facebook friends should reflect one's real-life social network by providing accurate data about users and by being a close-to-comprehensive map of all the important nodes in one's life.

Amid the media crush around Facebook, these premises go under-investigated. Facebook's claim to the honesty of the information posted by its users lies in the fact that anonymous profiles aren't allowed. "Facebook is an intersection of real life," said Chief Operating Officer Owen Van Natta in a wide-ranging interview with Advertising Age this summer. "There's not a lot of utility for it outside that. If you put up a fake profile on Facebook, people won't connect to it."

Yet there is evidence that people -- especially younger folks -- like to lie or at least fudge the truth on their social networks. A Pew study released in April found that 56% of teens surveyed posted at least a few false items on their pages. Just last week, reports surfaced that MySpace Co-founder Tom Anderson -- everyone's initial friend -- has been lying about his age for years. On his MySpace page, he says he's 32, but it seems he's somewhere between 36 and 40. That might not sound like a big deal, but, to put it in the rather vulgar terms of ad targeting, it puts him into a different demographic range. If large numbers of users have the same fleeting relationship with the truth, then it reduces the site's value.

Bring your parents
But even more vexing is the question of whether Facebook can hit -- and maintain -- critical mass among adults. As the social-graph rhetoric has heated up (and as grown-ups have spent more time on the site), there's a growing pile of anecdotal evidence that Facebook -- not to mention other social networks -- falls way short, especially among adults who have been allowed to join only since earlier this year.

Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist and an expert on networks, said figuring out how to appeal to the older set will be crucial to Facebook actually modeling the social graph.

For many adults, he said, "their Facebook network is not going to necessarily provide an accurate representation of their real networks -- rather, what they see is the subset of their acquaintances who are into social-networking services, and of those, the ones they get most information about are the ones who are really into using Facebook." What that means is "they end up learning a lot of irrelevant information about people they don't really care about, and only occasionally learning something relevant about someone important to them."

The risk, he said, is that the rolls will shrink after the novelty wears off.

Keeping it real
Another network expert says there's also a risk in relying too much on simple online renderings of real life.

"The social-network thing is interesting, but true behaviors still really happen offline," said Dave Balter, CEO of word-of-mouth network BzzAgent. His agents communicate through a web platform, but he's found that 80% of relevant behavior happens offline. "There is a falseness in the idea of creating a digital web of people you know and then pretending that mimics what goes on in real life. It might be interesting to look at it in graph form, but how much do you really connect to others through that?"

In the absence of empirical data, I turned to my own circle and asked how well their online networks of Facebook friends reflect their real-life, offline networks -- the sum of their business, familiar and social connections. For some, their day-to-day contacts aren't there. For others, Facebook is wholly a work thing and family members are missing. Two middle-age respondents even expressed frustrations that their college-age children have so far declined to join their network. Without being pressed much, just about all of the respondents -- generally heavy users with oft-edited pages -- indicated significant gaps or holes in their networks.

Obviously, Facebook is growing fast and it benefits significantly from a network effect. The more people join, the more robust the network will be.

A game changer?
What is at stake is not only the difference between a Facebook that's an interesting online media company and one that's a game-changer, but also the real, long-term value of online social networks to marketers, especially when you consider that an accurate modeling of interpersonal relationships on a large scale could be the key to unlocking the mysteries of word-of-mouth and understanding how consumers influence each other in a detailed way.

As a media company, Mr. Zuckerberg's creation is doubtless something special. In a world full of crumbling old titans and flash-in-the-pan startups, it's one of the few new properties to offer a massive amount of users real utility and engagement, thanks mainly to the brilliant move of allowing outsider developers to create applications such as games and file-sharing tools that Facebook users can use.

As a cultural game-changer on the magnitude of, say, a Google, Facebook is a story yet to be written. It's at best a work in progress, at worst an overheated symbol of a new tech bubble. Where it ends up depends on how successful it is in making good on all the social-graph promises.

Coming to terms
Mr. Zuckerberg, for his part, recently acknowledged that even Facebook doesn't wholly understand the social graph at this point and he repeatedly hinted about making improvements to the site that will speed that understanding. That rumored IPO, he insists, is years down the road.

Even if Facebook ends up "only" succeeding as a major ad play, Mr. Zuckerberg can always take solace in the example of a company that's been an enormous success despite not meeting its high-minded goal. A little firm called Google started out with boasts on nothing less than organizing the world's information. Its only unimpeachable achievement has been to own the area of search advertising -- and a $210 billion market cap.

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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen
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