The Societal Network

Published on: March 17th, 2011

Just how powerful is Facebook?

About a month and a half ago, Egypt, long considered one of the more stable Arab countries in the Middle East, boiled over into a revolution that resulted in the unseating of long-sitting President Hosni Mubarak. The recipe for this change included most of the usual ingredients a good revolution needs: extreme class disparities marked by an inordinately large poverty class; despotic, oppressive leadership; police repression; and ever-climbing price inflation of basic staples like food and energy.

But this one had a new twist to it. This one had Facebook.

While I’d stop short of calling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg “Moses,” his brainchild’s role in the Egyptian conflagration was more than just spark to gasoline. The ubiquitous social network site provided calls to action, an online rally point for what might have been an otherwise disorganized collection of rebels, and a magnifying glass for the rest of the world to see what was happening.

Facebook is boasting more than 500 million active users, and is second only to Google in terms of daily unique visitors in the U.S., according to Quantcast.com.

Those numbers are huge, but they don’t tell the whole story. Already, content-driven platforms have recognized the value of Facebook—whereas a year or two ago, driving traffic through search engine optimization was considered the holy grail of obtaining readership; the pendulum has now swung toward social networking. According to a TechCrunch.com article, ChompOn.com, a startup focused on helping people monetize the Web, valued a link shared on Facebook at $14. By comparison, a link tweeted was only worth $5.

In terms of ad revenue, that number is staggering, and it keys into the second oldest sales truth (The oldest: sex sells.) known to man: word-of-mouth is the best sales lead you can offer.

The fact is, people log on to Facebook before they do anything nowadays and are getting news and information shared to them by their friends on a more regular basis than from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. If your friend posted a link to a story, chances are you’ll click on it, because you probably share a lot of interests with that friend.

When you put that into context of the flow of information, suddenly, Facebook looms larger than Google. Whereas Google’s algorithms are set to crowdsource based on the search activities of millions, Facebook can set algorithms based on just your social network. Simply identifying patterns within the network in which you’re most active provides scads of deeply relevant information. All those “likes,” all of the people with whom you interact the most, all of the personal and demographic information you expose, all of the geotagging on your pictures, all of the “checking-in”…that all amounts to exposing human activity on an individual, person-by-person basis to Facebook that you’re providing completely voluntarily. A twist or two of the dial and Facebook can ensure you’re seeing exactly what they want you to see in that stream. And you’ll click on it, because those are your friends in there, by God. They would never mean you any harm.

But the real question is: Is Facebook your friend, too?

Not if your name’s Hosni Mubarak.

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