I’ve been rambling on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook tonight about the differences in how Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed’s founders participate in each community. Look at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Fan Page. Notice how he basically talks at the community? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a comment by him with his followers (perhaps part of the reason why it’s so difficult to manage Fan Pages right now). Now look at Ev Williams and Biz Stone’s Twitter profiles. You’ll notice a little more participation, but mostly with their inner circles and occasional outreaches to the community. Now go read Paul Buchheit and Bret Taylor’s FriendFeed profiles. Notice that they’re very actively involved in the conversation, responding in their own threads to people they barely know, participating in others’ conversations, etc. I think if you look at the profiles of other employees in each of the three organizations you’ll see a similar trend. Why is it that the community where the founders and employees participate the most is the smallest community with the lowest growth rate?
I’ve been contemplating this tonight. FriendFeed, as a whole has one of the tightest communities of all. For those that participate actively in the site, we quickly come to know each other – it’s the place where everybody knows your name. That’s why Scoble, and Louis Gray, and myself are so passionate about it. It is a great place to go meet new people, find more information, and grow with a community that cares and knows you. I asked the question why Facebook and even Twitter don’t see this as an opportunity to win a new audience, much of which feels a bit betrayed by the sale of FriendFeed to Facebook, and many who have never done much venturing outside the network to new places. It seems like an opportunity to me – after all, when Facebook bought FriendFeed, they bought the technology, not the community. The community is something that has to be earned, not bought.
Yet, at the same time I wonder if it really matters. With Facebook and Twitter’s immense growth, do they really need to be paying attention to the small FriendFeed community? FriendFeed has great technology, and great talent that built that technology, now working for Facebook (one who just left). Can the community be won in other ways? I think it can, and it goes back to the first paragraph above – look at the numbers compared to participation. I argue a community’s growth is not relative to the participation of its founders, but rather the technology’s capability to build community even further. It’s the technology that trumps community any day because it creates and enables that community. Technology that empowers individuals to create their own communities wins any day, and trumps founder participation hands down.
Gasp! You say – you mean I don’t have to participate to build a community? No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you’re a user of the tools, you definitely must be participating, nurturing, and sharing for your community to grow. What I’m saying though is that no matter who the founders are and whether they participate in your personal community or not, you’re going to take your community to the places that enable you to nurter, build, and grow a community the best. That’s why Facebook grew the fastest. That’s why people use Twitter. It’s also why FriendFeed was the smallest, yet had a great acquisition of some very talented individuals who know how to build this type of technology.
Let’s look at the technologies:
Facebook not only enables you to share status updates with your friends, but enables you to share photos, videos, notes, links, and more, all in an integrated environment. You have privacy controls to which you can control how public the information you share with your friends is. This encourages a native environment where family and close friends can communicate and share with each other, focusing on each individual’s roots to build community out of. You have lists that you can organize these individuals and filter their updates in your news stream.
At the same time Facebook provides Fan Pages, indexable by Google, for which you can subscribe, or “fan”, similar to the way you would do on the other networks. This is your public, more anonymous persona, something I think each individual needs as well. This enables you to share with the rest of the world what you’re doing, and build community and share through that means.
Then you have the API. Not only as an entrepreneur, developer, or community builder do I have access to create applications that create and nurture community within the Facebook environment, but Facebook has also given me the technology and tools to do that on my own website, all with the community I’m working to build on Facebook itself. It enables me to do that with my own community, and enable them to bring their communities into my own.
The richness of that experience is what makes Facebook so big, and is the reason for its growth. That has nothing to do with its founders or their participation. I’m not sure they need to participate so long as they keep building technology that further enables individual communities on the network.
Twitter baffles me at times, but I think I understand it. Twitter’s openness and focus on such a simple thing, status updates, is what has made it grow so big. Users can do whatever they want with the network. They can use it to update their friends with what they’re doing, respond, and grow a community through open communication.
Twitter also encourages the initiation of conversation. You post something on Twitter, link to somewhere else, and the communication continues elsewhere. Some times that filters back to Twitter. Some times the entire communication happens on Twitter.
Twitter’s API is as open as it can be. It’s fairly limited as compared to Facebook’s, but has enabled many people to bring their communities on Twitter back to their own brand and vice-versa to further grow community.
The problem with Twitter as compared to Facebook is that it is only status updates. You can respond, reply, and even retweet items you read, but it all centers around those status updates. There’s not much more depth than that, limiting the type and size of community one can build on the network. Yet at the same time the openness and lack of rules around users and its developer platform has enabled people to do things they would not normally be able to do with a community on Facebook. That’s why they’ve continued to grow and are the size (and hype) they are right now.
At the same time because they’re not quite the enablers of community in regards to their technology which Facebook is, I think their Founders and employees need to participate and get involved a little more. The technology still doesn’t quite sustain the building of community the way Facebook’s does.
I could probably argue FriendFeed has better technology that encourages and enables community building better than Twitter’s. The problem with FriendFeed is that almost all the technology found in FriendFeed keeps getting gobbled up by Twitter and Facebook. There’s not much new to it, and now that they’ve been bought by Facebook, that doesn’t appear to need to fully compete – it would just be an additional complement to the community-building offerings Facebook offers.
Beforehand FriendFeed was doing a good job keeping up, and perhaps could have even caught up to at least Twitter. Its growth was even starting to show that before they were acquired. Yet their founders still participated, as did the other employees of the company. Why is this? It was possible because the community was smaller – the founders were simply growing with the community, and the community was and is still a tight-knit community of people that knew each other.
I think as FriendFeed continued to build technology that enabled others to build community and relationships, that participation would have slowly evolved to each of the founders’ own close communities. They would not have needed to participate for the community to grow.
So what do we make of all this? I think the moral here is that entrepreneurs need to focus more on building technologies that encourage and enable community. When you’re writing code or having others write it is it enabling people to build relationships? Is it enabling people to share with others? How much so?
The Facebook/Twitter or even Google or Microsoft or Apple battle isn’t over yet – in the end it will be the one that best enables their users through technology to build their own communities and communicate better with each other. The better competitors will master this. There will be other entrants. It’s not the participation of a community’s founders that determines its success. It’s the technology of the company which creates community that does. In that regard, technology trumps community, hands down.