How to start an online social network from scratch

If you had to start an online social network from scratch, how would you do it? In Facebook’s case it started as an online and interactive addendum to the ’Facebook’ at Harvard which lists the student body and their photos for other students to be able to match names with faces. The key here is that Harvard undergrads knew one another. So if the software and interface were robust, you had an instant web of communication that you just don’t get in a Freshman Book.

Once that network was established, it was logical to proceed to the next lateral networks outside of Harvard, which were naturally the rival schools attended by Harvard students’ high school classmates and friends. Since everyone in these schools knew each other too, again the same instant networking made Facebook a shoo-in if the platform was robust. Once the Facebook universe was big enough, they could then open it up to the general public at which point it spread virally via the same means.

That’s a lot different than MySpace for instance, where people don’t know one another via built-in networks. MySpace can’t create viral network except via shared interests oriented around brands like rock stars, for instance. Why would I know or want to know the friends of some random person who happens to like Public Enemy as much as I do? Maybe if I was a die-hard fan I would, but usually, no.

On Facebook, by contrast, I not only know my friends but my friend’s friends too. And we have a lot of shared experiences that make the Facebook much more interesting than MySpace. That’s why Facebook works and LinkedIn works too. It’s also why MySpace doesn’t work. The closest thing I remember to Facebook’s networking effect in the social media space that failed is Friendster. Classmates is still around but that one never really took off.

So I finally got my invitation to Google Plus and I signed up and started inviting people. As my network has started to fill up, what I realized is that Google has been quite clever about setting up their network. First, they realized their previous social media forays were all busts. So they decided to make this one ‘limited use’ in order to control the experiment on early adopters before unleashing it en masse. This certainly made the buzz around the product a lot more hyped since every early adopter wanted in. It was a virtual velvet rope line which assured Google a higher response rate to early invitations.

But in doing this ‘limited Beta’ Google also recreated the necessary ingredient of a robust social network: familiarity. Basically, Google started their network with their own employees and the people who write about and deal with Google on a daily basis. These people all know each other. It’s almost exactly like Mark Zuckerberg’s starting Facebook with Harvard students only. A friend of mine who works at Google confessed to me that it has been a great tool for increasing interaction at Google, like an IM client on steroids. When I worked at Yahoo!, the Yahoo! IM client was great for that kind of thing but Google Plus has so many more features and uses, it is definitely a solid rival to Facebook.

Once Google opened the invitation floodgates (there are now over 10 million users of Google Plus), the same natural social networks that come from friend of friend dynamics were at play. With Google’s built-in user base and natural social networks working, Google Plus’ user base is going to mushroom much, much faster than even Facebook’s did. In fact, it’s the fact that Google is already ubiquitous and that Google Plus has deep integration into Google, which makes the product such a threat to Facebook. That is the one Google Plus feature Facebook should fear.

  1. Dave Holden says

    The problem of course with all of these “social” networks is that a considerable portion of their business is the monetisation of the innocence, inhibitions and unworldliness of todays teens. To the point where they’ll find it much more difficult to reinvent themselves or “start afresh” in the adult world.

    I’m just grateful I didn’t grow up at a time where I could so readily record and exhibit to a global audience all my teenage “growing pains”.

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