We’re All Friends Here: Reflecting on a Decade of Facebook

In the last 10 years, Facebook has quickly grown from a small university-based network to the world's most popular website. Associations could learn a ton from the decade-old social network—including a downside that they shouldn't be so quick to re-create.

In the last 10 years, Facebook has quickly grown from a small university-based network to the world’s most popular website. Associations can learn a ton from the decade-old social network—including a downside that they shouldn’t be so quick to re-create.

Ten years ago today, students at Harvard University got first crack at the most addictive site on the internet.

The network became famous for the controversy it drew right away, as well as the audience it built up within just a few weeks. And its narrow focus and relative exclusivity at first became a driver of attention—which led to the company, two and a half years later, announcing it would open its doors to anyone over the age of 13.

We talk all the time about when it’s going to burn out, but it’s not clear if it’ll ever truly fade away.

Happy 10th anniversary, Facebook. Here are a few pointers to learn from the social network nearly everyone uses.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Changes

It took a lot of steps to get from a simple profile to a highly interactive timeline that changes every time you reload the page. But Facebook got there, and it wasn’t afraid to get people a little angry in the process.

Too often, we’re looking so hard to please our users that we pass up truly innovative things in an effort to keep everyone happy.

The first sign of this came in 2006, when the network launched its News Feed, a feature that initially drew scorn from users but quickly became one of the site’s most fundamental features. (It wasn’t the last time this happened, by the way.) Since then, the company has redesigned its site about half a dozen times, with the most popular features (Facebook Timeline, the “Like” button, fan pages) becoming so much a part of the site’s fabric that most people couldn’t tell you the first time they ran into them. And they certainly couldn’t live without them.

This is something we, as developers, could learn from. Too often, we’re looking so hard to please our users that we pass up truly innovative things in an effort to keep everyone happy. Facebook did the opposite, and it’s remained relevant as a result.

Innovation Now Comes From the Bottom Up

As I noted last week, the world of computing is a way different place today than it was when the Apple Macintosh launched. And a big part of the reason for that is Facebook. It wasn’t the first mass-scale social network of its type, but it pulled off a trick that none of its competitors (MySpace, LiveJournal) ever really did: It started out as a consumer network that became immensely valuable for businesses.

When Apple tried to launch the Mac into the world, technology flowed from the top down. Now a lot of big ideas flow from the bottom up—and sometimes it forces us to adapt to trends that make us uncomfortable.

A recent story we reported here shows that social media still freaks some associations out: The International Studies Association, an academic group that publishes a number of scholarly journals, released a draft proposal that would ban publication editors or writers from taking part in any personal blogging, due to concerns among the association’s leadership that it could cause brand confusion or lead to unwanted affiliations.

In a lot of ways, the ISA debate reflects a larger challenge for academia—that blogging, the most basic form of social media, is seen as something only younger academics do, and that there’s a lingering perception that it isn’t worthwhile compared with traditional research. This is despite the fact that blogs hold a lot of potential for getting the general public interested in the topics that academics focus on.

But how long can this last? So what if social media—be it Facebook, Twitter, or even a blog—isn’t the way you’ve always done things? Associations have to be willing to adapt to the ways their audiences interact. Facebook has proved that consumers want to hear individual voices just as much as collective ones.

You Can Do Privacy Better Than Facebook

Yet, even as I praise Facebook for its strengths on its 10th anniversary, I have to bring up the privacy issue. It’s not a complete conversation about Facebook unless we address it.

If there’s one thing Facebook has struggled with over the years more than anything else, it’s this. There’s a sense, for many, that Facebook is making up the rules as it goes along—in a way that ensures there’s always confusion about what’s truly happening on the site. It means that articles explaining how to set your privacy correctly will never go away.

Association professionals with experience managing communities know how important it is that their members feel they can speak and share openly in a private community. Some—such as AOTA’s Maggie McGary, a frequent critic of Facebook’s privacy practices—know that there’s always a give and take when relying on third-party platforms, a lack of trust that comes with the territory. Some of it’s perhaps unfounded, but there’s plenty that’s completely valid about these complaints.

And there’s a lot of room, in your own private network or through other programs, to compete with Facebook or LinkedIn on the one thing that matters most to your members—being in a community that makes sense for them. With more than a billion users, Facebook doesn’t have the room to get personal. You do. Take advantage of that.

Facebook’s been around for a decade. You can see its good parts and bad, well documented, pockmarks and all.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put a wish on Mark Zuckerberg’s wall. We go way back.

(photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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