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8.3 The Social Graph

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the concept of the “social graph,” and explain how Facebook created a social graph stronger than its rivals’.
  2. Recognize the two strategic resources that are most critical to Facebook’s competitive advantage and why Facebook was able to create these resources while MySpace has fallen short.
  3. Appreciate that while Facebook’s technology can be easily copied, barriers to sustain any new entrant are extraordinarily high, and the likelihood that a firm will win significant share from Facebook by doing the same thing is considerably remote.

At the heart of Facebook’s appeal is a concept Zuckerberg calls the social graphThe global mapping of users and organizations, and how they are connected., which refers to Facebook’s ability to collect, express, and leverage the connections between the site’s users, or as some describe it, “the global mapping of everyone and how they’re related.”A. Iskold, “Social Graph: Concepts and Issues,” ReadWriteWeb, September 12, 2007. Think of all the stuff that’s on Facebook as a node or endpoint that’s connected to other stuff. You’re connected to other users (your friends), photos about you are tagged, comments you’ve posted carry your name, you’re a member of groups, you’re connected to applications you’ve installed—Facebook links them all.A. Zeichick, “How Facebook Works,” Technology Review, July/August 2008.

Facebook was established in the relatively safe cocoon of American undergraduate life and was conceived as a place where you could reinforce contacts among those who, for the most part, you already knew. The site was one of the first social networks where users actually identified themselves using their real names. If you wanted to establish that you worked for a certain firm or were a student of a particular university, you had to verify that you were legitimate via an e-mail address issued by that organization. It was this “realness” that became Facebook’s distinguishing feature—bringing along with it a degree of safety and comfort that enabled Facebook to become a true social utility and build out a solid social graph consisting of verified relationships. Since “friending” (which is a link between nodes in the social graph) required both users to approve the relationship, the network fostered an incredible amount of trust. Today, many Facebook users post their cell phone numbers and their birthdays, offer personal photos, and otherwise share information they’d never do outside their circle of friends. Because of trust, Facebook’s social graph is incredibly strong. Contrast this with early rival MySpace that was rife with imposters and fake profiles. Even News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch has had to contend with the dozens of bogus MySpace Ruperts!L. Petrecca, “If You See These CEOs on MySpace…,” USA Today, September 25, 2006. 

There is also a strong network effectAlso known as Metcalfe’s Law, or network externalities. When the value of a product or service increases as its number of users expands. to Facebook (see Chapter 6 "Understanding Network Effects"). People are attracted to the service because others they care about are more likely to be there than anywhere else online. And that large user base has also attracted all sorts of firms and organizations looking to connect with Facebook’s masses. Without the network effect Facebook wouldn’t exist. And it’s because of the network effect that another smart kid in a dorm can’t rip off Zuckerberg in any market where Facebook is the biggest fish. Even an exact copy of Facebook would be a virtual ghost town with no social graph (see Note 8.21 "It’s Not the Technology" below).

The switching costsThe cost a consumer incurs when moving from one product to another. It can involve actual money spent (e.g., buying a new product) as well as investments in time, any data loss, and so forth. for Facebook are also extremely powerful. A move to another service means recreating your entire social graph. The more time you spend on the service, the more you’ve invested in your graph and the less likely you are to move to a rival.

It’s Not the Technology

Does your firm have Facebook envy? KickApps, an eighty-person start-up in Manhattan, will give you the technology to power your own social network. All KickApps wants is a cut of the ads placed around your content. In its first two years, the site has provided the infrastructure for twenty thousand “mini Facebooks,” registering three hundred million page views a month.B. Urstadt, “The Business of Social Networks,” Technology Review, July/August 2008. NPR, ABC, AutoByTel, Harley-Davidson, and Kraft all use the service (social networks for Cheez Whiz?).

There’s also Ning, which has enabled users to create over 2.3 million mini networks organized on all sorts of topics as diverse as church groups, radio personalities, vegans, diabetes sufferers, and networks limited to just family members.

Or how about the offering from Agriya Infoway, based in Chennai, India? The firm will sell you Kootali, a software package that lets developers replicate Facebook’s design and features, complete with friend networks, photos, and mini-feeds. They haven’t stolen any code, but they have copied the company’s look and feel. Those with Zuckerberg ambitions can shell out the four hundred bucks for Kootali. Sites with names like Faceclub.com and Umicity.com have done just that—and gone nowhere.

Mini networks that extend the conversation (NPR) or make it easier to find other rabidly loyal product fans (Harley-Davidson) may hold a niche for some firms. And Ning is a neat way for specialized groups to quickly form in a secure environment that’s all their own (it’s just us, no “creepy friends” from the other networks). While every market has a place for its niches, none of these will grow to compete with the dominant social networks. The value isn’t in the technology; it’s in what the technology has created over time. For Facebook, it’s a huge user base that (for now at least) is not going anywhere else.

Key Takeaways

  • The social graph expresses the connections between individuals and organizations.
  • Trust created through user verification and friend approval requiring both parties to consent encouraged Facebook users to share more and helped the firm establish a stronger social graph than MySpace or other social networking rivals.
  • Facebook’s key resources for competitive advantage are network effects and switching costs. These resources make it extremely difficult for copycat firms to steal market share from Facebook.

Questions and Exercises

  1. What is the social graph? Why is Facebook’s social graph considered to be stronger than the social graph created by the sites of its early competitors?
  2. Does Facebook have to worry about copycat firms from the United States? In overseas markets? Why or why not? If Facebook has a source (or sources) of competitive advantage, explain these. If it has no advantage, discuss why.