What’s behind the rise of Facebook?

Facebook is commonly presented as “MySpace for people with brains” but that alone can’t explain the sudden surge in the popularity of the social networking site. Is it the API? Is it the network effect? Or is it (shudder) Paris Hilton?

If you haven’t received an invitation to sign up for Facebook in the past few months you are obviously a deeply unpopular and horrible person who has no business being on the Internet.

OK that’s a slight exaggeration but there’s no denying that Facebook has emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become a major contender in the social networking space fighting hard for second-place position in the market against Bebo. (MySpace remains the dominant social networking platform a position it’s frankly unlikely to cede any time soon.)

A recent analysis by Hitwise demonstrates the growth in Facebook’s profile. Between mid-April and the end of June visits to Facebook by Australian users grew by 246%. Some of that growth may have come at the expense of MySpace — its share of Hitwise’s ‘Net Communities and Chat Websites’ category dropped by around 1% during the same period to just over 7% while Facebook’s doubled from under 2% to just under 4%. Searches for the term ‘Facebook’ also rose by 93% during that time Hitwise found.

According to Facebook itself the site currently claims 27 million users and Australia represents its fifth-largest user group (for some odd reason Norway ranks ahead despite having one-fifth the population. Come on Aussies!)

Some related statistics are even more disturbing. One 2006 study by Student Monitor found Facebook in a three-way tie for second place with beer as a key “in” element of the tertiary education experience. (With that said the fact that “iPod” outranked both “beer” and “sex” is even more of a worry.)

But what’s behind the current boom? Facebook’s recent growth has often been attributed to the site’s decision to expand from its original university-only roots and allow anyone to sign up. However as that decision was made in September 2006 it’s not entirely convincing as a theory to explain the more recent proliferation though network effects can be unpredictable in their growth patterns and conspiracy theorists might enjoy the nine-month gap between opening the site and rapid growth from around June.

A more plausible cause is the May 2007 launch of the Facebook API which made it possible to develop third-party applications for use by Facebook members. Facebook doesn’t allow embedded HTML and CSS on its pages which has the advantage of not allowing users to create lairy grotesque design travesties (aka large swathes of MySpace) but the disadvantage of minimising customisation options.

A typical MySpace page: like digital vomit and usually overrun by teenage emo “cutters” and spammers promoting anabolic steroids.

Facebook Applications provide a means of achieving personalisation without the inherent security and ugliness risks. Since the official launch applications have proliferated ranging from the useful (maps to track places you’ve visited file sharing and collaboration applications) to the utterly facetious (becoming a vampire or a werewolf and biting everyone you know or tracking whether or not Paris Hilton is in jail at any given time).

Facebook’s official blurb is that “a Facebook application uses Facebook Platform to access information from the social graph offering users an experience that’s relevant to them” demonstrating that large swathes of corporate babble need not block the successful launch of a product. Presumably Facebook developers would be happily welcomed at Microsoft.

Mockery aside however it’s true that the most useful applications do draw on existing networks; while it’s superficially neat to embed a playable version of Pac-Man in your browser there’s no obvious benefit to doing this versus running it in MAME or Excel or online. (OK there’s a benefit to Facebook in keeping your eyeballs glued to the page and its associated advertisements. Speaking of which it’d help if some of those ads didn’t hover annoyingly over the captcha screen used when you send friend invitations.)

In any event there are more than 1500 add-on applications for Facebook now available. Many are derivative versions of existing Facebook features (often dressed up with the phrase ‘super’ or suchlike) and others skate on the verge of copyright infringement by quoting huge slabs of text from popular TV shows. But whatever your tastes there’s probably an application to fit.

A typical Facebook page: OMG is that Kevin Rudd? OMG OMG I’m friends with Kevin Rudd!

Whether that strategy can maintain growth is another matter. Facebook hasn’t yet suffered from endless complaints about the site being used for inappropriate purposes but that’s almost an inevitable consequence of growth. As with any major site funding technology expansion to match network growth will be a challenge and there’s already a low hum of privacy-related complaints. And then there’s the key question: who’s going to develop an application quoting key bits of wisdom from Ashton Mills?