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facebook magic: protocol characteristics

Facebook is strong magic, and is weaving itself deep into daily life. I have been delighted to discover how eager old friends are to re-connect, and I’m pleased that I’m not the only one.
Why does Facebook so effectively capture our attention? And are there general principles to learn which might be applicable to other sorts of open, collaborative social media? While sociological and marketing factors were critical, it runs deeper than that. I’ll sketch out four characteristics of the facebook ‘protocol‘ that I think contribute to its success:

  • scalable message size
  • asynchrony
  • information asymmetry
  • stochasticity

Scalable message sizes

The ‘Poke’ is the ultimate microchunked social interaction. It’s a 1-bit message that manages to eliminate all explicit semantic content, yet remains gratifying because it pushes our built-in attention-seeking buttons. But one of the magical things about facebook is that it scales seamlessly from an an add, to a poke, to a wall post, to a message, to more messages, to flying across the continent to catch up with an old friend (or flame).


Asynchronous communication is key to why facebook works, (as Zuckerberg mentioned in his f8 talk). Scott Karp proposes that Facebook fills a niche of providing asynchronous one-to-many communication. It’s more than just providing the effective platform, though — what Facebook (and other things, like Twitter) do is take interactions that would once have been synchronous and private and make them asychronous and public. Status updates, for example, might once have been passing spoken comments. But by broadcasting these casual comments into persistent public view, the probability that something will be of interest to someone else gets integrated over people and time. Similarly, many wall posts might once have been emails, but are now gratuitously and permanently public.

Information is highly asymmetric in facebook. While friendship is reciprocal, searching (or rather, ‘facebook stalking’) is not, and I have a hunch that such searches are not entirely uncommon. (It’s not just me, right?) Information asymmetry facilitates discovery, but by lettting users hold out other data, the scarcity of nonpublic data creates value in being facebook friends. By giving users full and gradated control over profile privacy, facebook allows each user to find and define an own optimal level of open disclosure while preserving some part of their value for actual friends.


Much (most?) of the information one reads in the news feed is very random. Why do I care that my friend in Japan is baking Laugenbrotchen right now? Yet I do care. Encouraging random data provides two things: a starting point for low energy-barrier, casual conversations, and a noise level that provides a constant stream of data which occasionally resonates (such as when I realized that a friend was going to be in LA the same time as me and we ended up catching up for drinks at Bar Lubitsch). This randomness needs to be controlled, however; as much as I’d like to keep up with all my friends, I can’t deal with my blackberry buzzing with every single baking project. (Yet somehow I can sometimes quite obsessively check the news feed…) Random data works much better asynchronously, at least until it is intelligently prioritized and geographically filtered.

None of the above characteristics are necessarily unique to facebook, nor is this list complete, but perhaps offers a few dimensions along which to understand and design social media – even in very different domains. What else am I missing?

07/18/2007 | attention, facebook, psychology | No Comments