Monday, 4 June 2007

The psychology of Facebook

Another follow-up, this time on Facebook. This has been getting a lot of UK press of late, from consideration of how much it is worth, to privacy issues, universities getting annoyed at students using it to criticise staff, being censored by organisations frightened of it, and the musings of BBC journalists about whether people are too "old" to Facebook

The joy of Facebook

What makes Facebook such an attraction? Some theories... 

1: Collecting: It's like Top Trumps and Pokemon and stamp collecting, in that it taps into the basic psyche of collecting things. As the collection of "Friends" grows, so it is like having a larger stamp collection, with an increasing feeling of achievement. "My stamp collection contains 10 stamps" is nothing. "My stamp collection contains 2,000 stamps" perhaps gives a feeling of achievement, a tangiable result and evidence of work and persistence.

To give your collection a bit more personalisation, you can optionally agree with your friends how you met:


...and add on other bits of information, write on their profile wall, and so on. So you aren't just remembering and "collecting" friends, but collecting relationships between people. (That sounds a bit wooly - just play with Facebook and it'll make more sense).

2: Not invited to the party: Facebook also digs away at the insecurities in people. "I have one friend" probably makes some people feel a bit insecure and Billy no-mates. In the deeply insecure, this may be amplified by the lie-awake-at-night worry that your peers can see your profile on Facebook, and while they may have 50, 100, 200 friends they will mockingly see that you have a pathetically small number, confirming your worst fears about the low opinion they have probably held of you over all those years etc.

Yes, Facebook could cause a lot of angst to the paranoid amongst us :-)

3: Twitching curtains: "Curiosity", and it's cousin "nosiness", are basic cognitive attributes. Anyone who says they are never nosey or never curious as to what their neighbours or work colleagues are up to is probably fibbing. Having lived in several small communities, where gossip is an alternative currency, the general rule seems to be "most residents discuss most other residents". Though, in many ways, this is preferable to the anonymity of the city, where people often live next door to dead people for weeks or months at a time without realising.

Facebook is up-front about letting you keep an eye on what your friends are up to. There's a status box. You type in - if you want - what you are doing. There's another page where the most recent updated status of your friends are listed; here's a screenshot of a good example. Currently, of my peers, Dan is off to Paris, Tom has just completed a half-marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes, David in Lewis is bottling his home-made wine, and Jenny has finally bought a house. Utterly meaningless to you (unless you are my evil twin or stalker), but of interest to me. The same way that your friends are of no interest to me but of much interest to you.

4: People like us: It's a social network for what my cousin calls "the deadwood" - basically, everyone over 30. The demographics for new users registering show an accelerating rise in people from 35 onwards signing up (this slide from an interesting bundle of Facebook stats slides):


I'm 38. When I use Facebook I don't occasionally look at a person's profile and think, with total dismay, "I'm old enough to be your father." That's happened to me in MySpace. And that's partially why I've given up on Bebo, as it's not far off the point of thinking "I'm old enough to be your grandfather." How depressing would that be?

No, there is a generational thing there, and I'm more comfortable with peers who are very roughly within my age range. The birthday/age feature on Facebook tells me the youngest friend I have is 25 (four of them) and the oldest is 74. If you are too young to remember life under Thatcher - and worryingly, this year's University intake will contain that generation -  then we probably aren't going to be discussing politics anyway. And I'm not going to turn into one of the dull people who turn up at every village meeting and start their sentences with "In my day...". No, 25 to 74 is fine.

5: Auto-biography: Once you've linked up with a few people, then Facebook creates a "Social Timeline". This shows when and who and why you ended up meeting with Facebook people. As an aide memoire, this has been unexpectedly interesting, showing that I did a heck of a lot of networking (that led to people I'm still in touch with) at certain jobs, but not at others. It also shows that for the couple of years after I went self-employed, I did hardly any networking as I was busy being a part-time tourist. (That's what happens when you live between two airports which host several budget airlines, and you don't have to book time off work). 

6: Expansion is quick, easy and free: I like Wordpress, as a blogging and website development tool, as plug-ins are being created all the time to add functionality. A bit of FTPing, and a variable amount of fiddling, and often - though not always - another dimension has been added to a website or blog.

However, Facebook is simpler. 


Adding new functionality is done within Facebook - no FTPing, or messing about with files or directories. It takes literally seconds, which means that an application of interest can be very quickly experimented with. Several times I've installed, played with, and uninstalled applications in under 2 minutes. Therefore, it appeals to people who like to tinker and experiment, but don't have the time, inclination, knowledge, attention span or geekiness to mess about with anything technical.

So what of rival services? Will Facebook knock 'em out of the market place? One in particular is possibly doomed in the long-term:

Friends Reunited: Web 1.1 (and that's generous) 

The main competitor to Facebook in the UK is Friends Reunited (FR). This was sold by the couple who set it up from scratch less than 18 months ago (great move and perfect timing), to ITV for a minimum of £120 million (seriously bad purchase). I wonder when the people who run ITV had a good look at Facebook - guess that was a really bad day in the office.

FR does has the advantage of being UK-oriented; the terminology and instruction on the website are geared towards UK schools and academia. You can do searches for people just in the UK and Ireland. There are already a fair few people signed up to it (39 out of the 103 students in my school year) and paying their annual fee. It's also branched out into associated ancestry services (Genes Reunited). And, unlike services such as Facebook, FR doesn't suffer the bane of garish ads:


However, there are serious problems with Friends Reunited. I've just gone back to it for the first time in a while and have literally gasped at the awfulness of it. I'd be almost embarassed if someone saw me using this website. Here's five of the problems FR has:

  1. Many of the accounts on FR are years old and dead. There's no way of telling which are dead and which are still being used and feeding through to a working email account.

  2. Get this - you have to sign up and pay money just to make contact with someone. On Facebook you can link up and send messages to other people. On FR, it's a £7.50 subscription. I can't imagine many - possibly any - people signing up to FR without having a good go on the (free) Facebook service first.

  3. FR looks AWFUL. Not in a vile MySpace way, but in a "My first attempt at HTML" way. Facebook is slick and so 2007. Friends Reunited is clunky and basic, so 1997. There is no way any self-respecting net user is going to evangelise about FR. "Come join me on this noddy, clunky, basic website."

  4. FR doesn't allow you to add applications and extra functionality, wheras Facebook does. With FR, you can add pictures, basic notes, messages such as you've past your driving test and, erm, um, little else.

  5. FR is grindingly slow. What is it running on, a ZX81?

The only real advantage that FR has over Facebook is the UK-oriented methods of searching and listing people and places. But that's it. If the search functionality improved in Facebook, then I can't see a reason to use Friends Reunited. It would be interesting to follow the graphs of how many (UK) users they had signed up over the next few months and years.


  1. You convinced me, so I registered with Facebook a couple of days back.Thanks fellah!J

  2. Hi John,Very interesting post, nice one! Well geez, I guess next step is to add you to my Facebook friends!Vero

  3. Evaluating Facebook « UK Web Focus12 June 2007 at 16:04

    [...] across a number of posting on the potential of Facebook, including one from John Kirriemuir’s Silversprite blog, Mike Ellis on his Electronic Museum blog and, for those who like puns, some witticisms provided on [...]

  4. I found your blog whilst searching for info re the psychology of collecting things........two hours later I'm still rummaging around face book (for the first time. Thanks for the lead! The collecting insight will have to wait! Nice blog by the way.

  5. Indeed. Pretty much my thoughts - except I haven't been back to FR recently ...Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Facebook: an army of nerds disagrees at Silversprite11 July 2007 at 01:48

    [...] another bizarre Facebook development, one of my previous - and flippant - blog postings about this application has been unexpectedly picked up by an online journal, then stuck onto the front of [...]

  7. Lynn Marentette28 March 2008 at 09:07

    John,I must have missed this post about Facebook. Good points!A good number of my Facebook friends are my extended family members, which is great, since we all live far from one-another. My nieces and nephews prefer to interact with me via Facebook over regular "boring" e-mail messages.Lynn

  8. הפסיכולוגיה שמאחורי פייסבוק | ברוקנר / נטע / יער אינטראקטיב13 May 2008 at 15:45

    [...] המאמר של ג'ון קירימויר מיוני 2007 על הפסיכולוגיה של פייסבוק ראיתי צורך לעדכן כמה נקודות שעלו במאמר ואינן נכונות [...]

  9. used this as a resource for my pyschology presentation, not a great idea though it seemed like it at nearly 3am- was trying to keep a 4 min presentation to a bunch of first years interesting tho hope it works and looking forward to the book being published.

  10. pyschology is a very interesting branch of science, it deals with the inner workings of the mind*".