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Friday, 21 March 2014

The changing face of Facebook

With a user base of 1.3 billion people, Facebook is rivaling India and China as the world's most populated nation. And it is indeed as complex as a huge nation, with smaller networks, communities, brands, fans, celebrities, countries and sub-continents, all united or segregated by their interests.

Those of us who arrived early on Facebook in India remember it as an 'empty room' where one had to really search to find one's friends. Most of them were still on Orkut and the migration was a slow process - it's barely a year since Facebook's user base in India overtook Orkut. Today, it's routine for people to have a few hundred friends, the more popular people have several thousand followers. Yes, there are Facebook celebrities who are widely shared and quoted on the social media network, even if they are not as prominently featured in mainline media. Brands routinely strike up several hundred thousand fans, several big brands have crossed a million. Facebook was earlier a sparsely settled continent waiting to be discovered, now cities and townships are sprouting overnight.

And finally, here is a sign that the world's largest social network is maturing - the 50 plus generation is arriving, and 'friending' their kids, as well as locating their own peers. While the more avant-garde (younger, more creative) are moving out to explore Pinterest, Instagram and teens are taking refuge on WhatsApp, WeChat and more.

As Facebook gets more commercialised, it's obvious that more and more users are there to market something, rather than purely connect with other people. You need not be a big brand or business to have this need - increasingly, individual entrepreneurs are using it to promote their talent, knowledge, business, exhibitions, shops, websites and services to their own circle of friends. In fact, the biggest shift on Facebook is the rise of 'people marketing'. There are simply more and more people who do not have the budget or wherewithal to deal with organised advertising or digital campaigns, but simply promote themselves through the medium of a social network. In an acknowledgement of this, Facebook has made it extremely cost effective for cost-conscious entrepreneurs to use the medium to promote themselves. It costs as little as a few hundred rupees to boost a post. A full marketing campaign for a launch, reaching a large pan-national audience customised to your need, could cost as little as Rs.30,000.

Our business did not initially have a Facebook page. Our friends were not necessarily going to be our clients, and we thought that those who were, would prefer to not have their personal space invaded by work solicitations. So we put our resources into a website (a calling card), a blog (knowledge leadership), a LinkedIn page (building a client network) and a Twitter Feed (staying connected to a mass base). It seemed logical to us.

We were forced to re-consider last year when we realised that the sheer user base and visibility was important, irrespective of relevance. And also because Facebook is changing.

It’s much less personal and intimate than it used to be. The deeper, more personal conversations are taking place elsewhere (WhatsApp? BBM?). People are gradually sharing specialised interests elsewhere (Instagram? Pinterest?). And Twitter is increasingly emerging as  the best place to get fame for your pithy one-liners.

Increasingly you will find people on Facebook simply sharing links. It's intriguing to me that this was the way we initially used Twitter - we simply re-tweeted stuff. Now too, sharing and liking are becoming increasingly more convenient and passive ways to interact with the world. At least, that's what it looks like.

What's the reason behind this? Maybe there is simply too much content thrown at us on Facebook, and we are coming there to consume it. Maybe the stuff we do is getting segmented across different social media platforms. But it Facebook is definitely not the school re-union party any more. It's the mall where we are window shopping and showing each other what we like. And what's the next logical step - a social commerce site? Time will tell, but meanwhile, the face of Facebook is surely changing.