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Why do some social web platforms catch-on (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia) while countless others don't?
February 13, 2009 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Why do some social web platforms catch-on (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia) while countless others don't?

From a diffusion of innovations perspective, I'm trying to look at how certain social web platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, MetaFilter, even) catch-on, while loads of others fail to. Is there any good research on the failure for certain websites to diffuse? Or on why the ones that did diffuse did?
posted by GIMG to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You seem to be assuming that there's some feature that makes those a success which the failures did not.

It's not that simple. There are other factors to commercial success besides the basic features of the product. This seems counterintuitive, but it's true: there have been many cases in the past where products which were identical nonetheless had drastically different rates of success. (Why is Coca-Cola successful and Royal Crown Cola a distant memory?)

What accounts for the difference in these kinds of cases? Mostly random fluctuation at the beginning, and then network effect reinforcing and hardening initial random differences in success rates.

"Social proof" is a powerful mechanism in this kind of situation, and the degree to which it operates in favor of one product over another usually has little to do with any inherent merit on the part of the product.

Let me point out that even the people creating these kinds of products don't know how to guarantee success. If the difference between success and failure were something that could easily be analyzed, wouldn't you think they would know what it was, and thus that their particular products wouldn't have failed?

(By the way, incumbent effect is also very powerful. Irrespective of why Wikipedia became a success, it exists now and that eco-commercial niche is no longer available for a new challenger to occupy.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:27 PM on February 13, 2009

Well, Facebook's initial strategy was to gain critical mass within a relatively small audience (Harvard University students) and they expanded slowly from there.

MySpace is heavily rumored to have built it's initial userbase with e-mail marketing with lists from a founder's previous companies.

YouTube got huge in part to the combination of factors including it's well executed video embedding feature, compelling content (Jon Stewart crossfire beatdown, SNL clips, etc) that were compelling to web users but not always widely seen on initial broadcast, and also the widespread adoption of broadband.

The Twitter creators had large followings online in techie circles from their past successes creating popular services like and Odeo (which they eventually sold to focus solely on Twitter).

The book Founders at Work is an excellent read if you'd like to hear a bunch detailed accounts of success and failure in the web world.
posted by ejoey at 3:52 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Really there's not going to be single answer. Each platform found success likely in its own way. If there was a single golden bullet then you wouldn't be asking - someone would have figured it out.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:47 PM on February 13, 2009

posted by fullerine at 4:48 PM on February 13, 2009

Royal Crown Cola still exists!
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:48 PM on February 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Marketing. Pure marketing. It creates and it destroys.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:13 PM on February 13, 2009

Perhaps some illustrative examples of platforms that succeeded in one place but failed in another would be interesting. Do you know anybody still on Friendster? Odds are that they're either an unfrozen caveman from the year 2003 or from the Philippines. How about Google's Orkut? Close to zero penetration in the US but completely dominates Brazil. Why is that?

I seem to recall reading an article (which I'll be damned if I can find anymore) about how one of the early higher-ups at Friendster was a particularly well-connected Filipino who seeded the network with all of her friends and family back in the Philippines. By the time MySpace and Facebook came around, Friendster was already too entrenched to be displaced.

Here's an article that tries to explain Orkut's popularity in Brazil. Personally, I think most of those reasons are just half-assed, armchair guessery. Except for the pronunciation thing, the reasons given are all reasons why some social-networking platform would be popular, not why Orkut specifically would be popular. I would not be surprised if a similar, favorable initial seeding situation (i.e.: someone very popular and/or connected was one of the early adopters) was what explains why Orkut is pretty much all in Portugese now.

Anyways, I guess my point is that the initial seeding of a social-network matters a great deal to how that network develops. Another case in point: Facebook. By starting at Harvard and then expanding to other colleges and universities before opening up to the general public, they grew their user base with a fairly specific segment of the population. I hypothesize that this is why you'll occasionally hear CNN or NPR anchors saying things like "Check out our page on Facebook" but never "Check out our MySpace page".

One last point: while the initial seed population is important, you may or may not be able to tell which ones will take root. In Facebook's case, they seem to have very carefully cultivated their users. Friendster and Orkut, on the other hand, didn't set to become the #1 portals in the Philippines and Brazil. It just kind of happened.
posted by mhum at 5:57 PM on February 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

If there was an answer to this that was right even half the time we'd all be super rich.

But for social networks marketing is a huge part of it. A social network can't work until there's a critical mass of participants. You've got to have those participants because they are the people creating your content and if a site fails it's often simply because of low user numbers. So you've got to convince tens of thousands of people that signing up and giving away their content (their twits, videos, lists of friends, advice, whatever) is a good idea. And in some cases that it's a better place to do that than an existing service. You can do that by buying an existing set of users from a similar service (Like Google did with YouTube), paying early adopters to participate and recommend others, priming the pump with some fake content, plastering every advertising resource with the site, or some combination of all of these.

Now why do users stick or get drawn one place and not somewhere else? That's the question for the ages. You could do a case by case study of each of the successes you mentioned and their competitors and you'd find different answers in each case. And even those answers wouldn't probably be right. For example YouTube won because it made it easy for anyone to embed videos of cats and babies laughing into any web page. Facebook got popular because it's not MySpace, which is for drunken teenagers. Twitter is popular because it appealed to people's vanity and Wikipedia is popular because it appealed to hippy know-it-alls.* All of these answers are reasonable, all of them are different and all of them are wrong.

*Address all complaints to MeMail, thanks.
posted by Ookseer at 6:02 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you might find this recent Slate article as a starting point for some reading on how ideas gain traction and spread.
posted by Ookseer at 6:06 PM on February 13, 2009

For the same reason that any innovation catches on:

1. relative advantage
2. compatability
3. complexity
4. triability
5. observability

If you'd like a summary, memail and I'll send you that chapter of my dissertation.
posted by k8t at 7:06 PM on February 13, 2009

Aside from luck, connections, hard work, and more luck, I have some ideas (probably none of the original):

MySpace succeeded due to benign neglect. Friendster hunted down fake profiles. MySpace didn't seem to give a shit, so people created profiles for their favorite band, etc and then they friended them. MySpace also failed to sanitize user input into profiles, as a result, people figured out they could add CSS & javascript and customize/personalize/uglify their profiles to their hearts content.

Facebook's big thing was that it wasn't MySpace. It started at Harvard, carefully grew to other ivy league schools, and then more undergrad institutions. When it opened to HS students, it was a more "grown up" environment than MySpace. It was also more approachable to people who couldn't stand the uglyness and poor usability that came with MySpace's customizability.

Flickr had many things going for it. It was one of the first flowers to emerge after the long winter of the dotcom crash, so it wasn't competing for attention with a bunch of other startups. Their timing also meant that they were one of the first startups to take advantage of the post-boom economics: bandwidth, hardware, and datacenter space was relatively cheap and there was a lot of great open source software to build upon. In addition, broadband penetration and digital camera sales had been growing steadily despite the bust.
Flickr also nicely complemented the fact that it was increasingly cheap and easy to self-publish thanks to commoditized hosting and a variety of blogging platforms. Into all that, Flickr planted the seed of the public photo. Unlike older photo hosting sites, which were oriented around selling prints, and which actively fought attempts to make photos widely visible, anything you uploaded to Flickr could be linked to from an Email message or embedded in a forum or blog post and everyone would be able to see it without creating another damn account.

YouTube hit many of the same notes as Flickr. They treated as cheap that which others were still treating as expensive. Their use of Flash video was also important. Flash penetration was already pretty healthy, and if you didn't have it, it was quicker and easier to install than Quicktime or updating Windows Media (youtube ended up really helping drive up Flash adoption). They didn't really take off though until they made it easy to share and embed videos. As a result, they ended up attaching themselves to the amazing growth of MySpace, because lots of people added videos to their profiles, or left them for friends in comments.

Wikipedia also rode the rise of socially networked media distribution (which includes the rise of Google and PageRank). A small group of people bought in to the ideals of Wikipedia so much they started writing and editing articles. A larger group of less committed believers linked to Wikipedia in their blog posts, etc. Google started boosting Wikipedia results higher and higher in search engines thanks to all the incoming links, which drew more attention. The larger the audience, the more people there were to see something that needed fixing, and some of them stepped up to the task.

Twitter had a few things going for it. First, it did actually represent an until then underserved mode of communication. Brief & generally public, often timely and immediate, but not too much so. It probably didn't hurt that it came at a time when people who'd formed tight associations in their first jobs out of college at some failed dotcom ended up scattered among new employers. Second, rather like MySpace, I think, it had some benign neglect going for it. Twitter was simple enough that it didn't really need an API, and when didn't try to stop people from hooking other apps up to it, more people did it and it ended up as a sort of platform.

I think MeFi's success probably has something in common with many of these. If I understand right, it started out in an already established social group and drew in friends of friends. The culture that developed in the early days + the barriers to participation (invite only, and then the small fee) helped keep the quality level high. A lot of the early users had blogs and such, and ended up linking back to MeFi, which helped its standing in Google searches. In addition, it's members had a broad range of interests, which helped it show up in the long tail of searches. All helped bring in context sensitive ad revenue. Also, it was relatively inexpensive to operate so it could keep chugging away even as lots of startups died.
posted by Good Brain at 8:01 PM on February 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

Part of the answer is ... well, malleable. Friendster was a success for a while, but then hit scaling issues, and failed to update its servers or its software quickly enough to meet demand for speed and features. So an initial advantage, it would appear, can be squandered.

Wikipedia's success was largely unexpected, as a somewhat accidental outgrowth of the more hierarchical Nupedia project. And it continues to be hounded by fears of collapse or implosion based on this key question of control.

MeFi is a success and had early mindshare, but seems to be less and less important, I'm disappointed to say. It continues to succeed for its userbase partly because there is almost nothing out there that really competes for its niche.
posted by dhartung at 9:38 PM on February 13, 2009

Same reason why a certain "spots" becomes popular. People just start going to one because their friends go there. Other people see that people are crowding at this location.. so they think, hmm must be something good there. And it catches on.

This was the topic of malcom gladwell's book The tipping point about trends and why some catch on and other's don't.
posted by 0217174 at 10:06 PM on February 13, 2009

There are many, many factors. You kind of have to learn the whole story of each one. And it is usually a story, not an "explanation" or a single reason. That's like asking why some men become president while others don't. It's not any one thing. It takes a great many things, and some luck.
posted by scarabic at 1:09 AM on February 14, 2009

I remember that Facebook opened up to my school in May 2004. Shortly after that, this thing called XuQa came along that everyone I knew on Facebook started inviting me to. XuQa had a terrible interface and seemed to be based on paying the owners money to get virtual coinage, which you could then use to post things on people's profiles, etc. There were supposedly ways to earn it, too—e.g. logging in would get you 1 cent or something—but in practice they were pretty limited, kind of like on Second Life. Facebook let you do everything for free. XuQa started out looking pretty sleek and professional, but now has all the visual appeal of an online gambling site, albeit a Web 2.0 online gambling site.

Also, Facebook for a time introduced an under-the-radar, invite-only feature known as Wirehog—which did exactly what the name suggests, serving as a stand-alone file-sharing app (Windows-only) that students on Facebook could use over their campus networks. (It was supposed to work with anyone's connection, even for those off-campus, but in practice didn't work so well outside the network.) That was a pretty exciting development, if rather poorly coded and slow to load, and interest increased pretty quickly for a while, as I recall, and then dropped off again just as quickly.

Anyway, those are the things I remember about the early days of both services. And guess which one you've actually heard of now...
posted by limeonaire at 8:16 AM on February 14, 2009

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