Thursday, November 16, 2006

Psychology: Four Lessons From The Facebook

It should escape no one's notice that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of, was a psych major. Had this not been this case, I don't believe would have ever attained any substantial user-base. In any startup, especially a consumer targetted startup, we must recognize the paramount importance of psychology.

Consider this: Functionally speaking, there is very little difference between and In fact, even a site like is not, from this purely functional vantage point, very far off from these. Try, if you will, to imagine its back in 2004, and does not exist. Now suppose Mark and his friends got together and decided they wanted to make the "Myspace of the College World." Could anyone take this seriously? What on earth would college students need a social networking site for anyway? And yet this is precisely what Zuckerberg and his friends did, only to go on and witness tremendous success. How? The answer is, of course: psychology.

Here are 4 psychological aspects that the Facebook got dead . . . right.

The first and foremost thing is the name. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." On the Internet, this is absolutely wrong. There are no smells on the Internet, only domain names. Choosing the name "thefacebook" (Facebook's original name): this was Zuckerberg's first stroke of genius. In the name--here we have it--is the essential spin that Facebook utilized. To get students on board you had to, essentially, lie to them. Don't tell them they're signing up for a social networking site. Tell them they're simply adding their information to an electronic facebook. All students can understand and respect that.

Second, and closely related to the name: The image. In certain cases , the image does not have to be precisely crafted, but it always must resonate with the audience and the "spirit" of the website. In Facebook's case, this was a particularly delicate matter, since they needed to build a social networking site in the guise of an academic resource. It needed to be classy, fully functional, and academic. Well, hop on over to and log in if you've got an account. No one can deny that the design of is at once academically respectable (it really does remind me of one of those facebooks we had), exquisitely designed, and packed with of all the functionality users expect from a social networking site. Thus, they passed this test with flying colors.

Third: A likeable character. To appeal to the college crowd, Facebook had to appeal to the typically quirky, idealistic college student. If they had included any advertisements at the onset, that would have killed them right off. Just as important are things like the little witticisms sprinked like so much CSS padding througout the site. Things like: "I'll find something to put here" and "Too close for missles, I'm switching to guns." Sublte details like these have an immense impact on the subconcious psychological impression of the users.

Fourth: Making the user feel special. The cachet of exclusivity was intense when Facebook first launched. Who could join? Only Harvard students. This is practically the definition of privilege in the modern world. No surprise where Facebook expanded next: the Ivy League. And then next, of course, came all colleges, soon to be followed by "select corporations", and on they went. In retrospect, its somewhat surprising there was no significant backlash against this pandering to and blatant manipulation of the elitist spirit. After all, an exclusive social network like has endured some pretty intense criticism in the democracy and equality prizing societies that it abides in. But I think what happened here is simple: People will believe what they want to believe. In the case of Facebook, Ivy Leaguers probably wanted to believe that: (1) They were, after all, very special and lucky people, and (2) They were however, not actually elitist, and therefore (3) The Facebook was actually not pandering to the elitist spirit, but rather had just happened to decide that, as their limited server capacity expanded, they would expand (arbitrarily, as if) among the most "well known" universities -- those universities that, as fate would have it, "just hopped to mind."

Those are the primary lessons in psychology from Making the user feel special, imbuing the site with a likeable character, presenting a carefully crafted image, and choosing The Right Name. If you still don't believe me, compare to ConnectU. In these respects, ConnectU made all the wrong decisions. The name is (clearly) wrong, the flash based entry age is reminscent of a seedy dating site, the character does not seem to exist or is overtly commercial, and there was no serious attempt to create a "special" feeling for their users---ConnectU was made available to a ton of schools while Facebook was still busy pandering exclusively to the Sons and Daughters of Privilege. I'd actually be willing to bet that ConnectU still has a chance at competing with Facebook if they fix these serious errors. After all, functionally speaking, they are the same site.

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