Is This What Facebook’s Future Looks Like?

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Many people have belonged to some sort of defunct (or, if not defunct, gasping for breath) social network—Myspace, Deadjournal or Friendster, perhaps. These zombie social networks might actually be able to teach a thriving one like Facebook a thing or two. Computer scientists are fascinated by what makes one network thrive and another shrivel, so they did what they’re calling a digital autopsy on the cause of death of poor, poor Friendster.

Just like a good CSI case, on the surface, Friendster’s decline doesn’t seem so interesting. MIT Technology Review writes:

In July 2009, following some technical problems and a redesign, the site experienced a catastrophic decline in traffic as users fled to other networks such as Facebook. Friendster, as social network, simply curled up and died.

But there must be more to the story. How can a company that turned down $30 million from Google in 2003 simply slip away? The thing is, a social network has a couple of key features that make it vulnerable. Members of that social network can leave, they can go to another site that seems more appealing. So when the costs of using something like Friendster outweigh the benefits, they do. The paper puts it this way:

We empirically analyze five online communities: Friendster, Livejournal, Facebook, Orkut, Myspace, to identify causes for the decline of social networks. We define social resilience as the ability of a community to withstand changes. We do not argue about the cause of such changes, but concentrate on their impact. Changes may cause users to leave, which may trigger further leaves of others who lost connection to their friends. This may lead to cascades of users leaving.

And when one friend leaves, their friends are more likely to leave, and so on and so forth. The key here, though, is how many friends you have on the network. MIT Technology Review writes:

But Garcia and co point out that the topology of the network provides some resilience against this. This resilience is determined by the number of friends that individual users have.

So if a big fraction of people on a network have only two friends, it is highly vulnerable to collapse. That’s because when a single person exits, it leaves somebody with only one friend. This person is then likely exit leaving another with only one friend and so on. The result is a cascade of exists that sweeps through the network.

However, if a large fraction of people on the network have, say, ten friends, the loss of one friend is much less likely to trigger a cascade.

So when that one friend of yours leaves, say, Facebook, you’ve probably got a hundred other still there. You’re not likely to say, “Well, Bob’s gone, no point being here anymore.”

The thing that prompts your friends to leave is important too. How much cost is there before someone just picks up and goes? For Friendster, it appears that the combination of both technical issues and site design changes was the perfect storm to drive away those key people who started the crash. So as long as Facebook can keep many of us from signing off for good, its chances of shriveling away as Friendster did are slim, no matter how many times Bob threatens to delete his account.

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