Back in 2007, I wrote a prediction for my book Wired for Thought that MySpace would soon be overtaken by a little known network called Facebook. Most people, including my Harvard editors, thought I was delusional. MySpace was all the rage and experts were predicting it would overtake Google, Yahoo!, the written word, even communication itself. But just like every social network before it, MySpace flamed out.
Is it Facebook's turn? Facebook went public just three months ago with an initial share price of $38. Less than two months later, it's trading for $18.75. Why is Facebook in a slump? Pundits have suggested myriad reasons including poor investor relations, lack of revenue, and expiring lockups. Last week CNN, along with a host of other sources, argued that perhaps CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the venerable prodigy who built Facebook from the ground up, isn't up to the task of managing a large public company. This week the CFO came under scrutiny from no less than Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times. As tempting as it is to place blame on the business, there may be a simpler explanation as to why it's not possible to keep Facebook's valuation at $105 billion indefinitely.
My perspective is that the human brain isn't capable of utilizing a network like Facebook if it grows too large.
To understand why, let's indulge in a little brain science 101: the human brain grows rapidly in infancy, reaches a maximum weight of 1400 grams by the time we are teenagers, and then starts to actually shrink by the time we are twenty. The rapid growth of our early years helps create network connections, just like you do on Facebook. But unlike Facebook, instead of continuing to grow late in life, the brain forges higher quality connections and patterns, losing the vast majority of its early relationships. It replaces sheer quantity of neural connections with quality, making us smarter without the need for additional volume. When the brain stops growing and reaches a point of equilibrium, it gains intelligence.
Virtually all networks have similar limitations. They roughly follow the development pattern of the human brain. For social networks, quantity should only be the goal up to a state of critical mass. Then the goal must be equilibrium, or quality. We find many examples of critical mass in nature and biology. For the human brain it's 100 trillion neuron connections; anything significantly above that number creates disorder. For ant colonies, the magical number is around one million ants. After that, the colony's growth dramatically slows — or worse, the colony fails.
We don't know yet what critical mass is for a social network. We have seen many implode before — remember Classmates.com, Friendster, MySpace? Each of these hit a limit at which point the network became too big, too unwieldy and eventually shrunk into a black hole never to be seen again. At 950 million users, Facebook is clearly pushing some upward bounds.
So how do we know when a social network is getting too big? If it is not the total number of users, then could it be the number connections and friends, currently hovering around 100 billion for Facebook? The answer actually turns out to be a bit of both. For insight, we can again turn to the brain — specifically, neocortical processing (brain math) capacity. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that neocortical processing limits the number of meaningful social relationships a person can maintain. For humans, that number is estimated to be somewhere around 150. This means that it is difficult for you to maintain more than 150 relationships. So in theory, for Facebook, the maximum number of efficient connections is roughly 950 million x 150; anything greater than that will yield an inefficient network that risks implosion.
But Facebook is already well beyond that point. The average Facebook user has 229 "friends" on the site, so it stands to reason that a significant portion of these friends are not "high quality." What's the result? Getting a notification that April Ridmoore downloaded "Call Me Maybe" on Spotify. Who's April? Some girl who went out with your younger brother in high school who "poked" you last year.
To be fair, Facebook has tried to restrict the unfettered growth of its network. They make it easy to turn off notifications, and Facebook has made great strides in putting the kibosh on as many as possible. And the "random" people you encounter on Facebook are generally people you know, people you used to know, or people only one degree of separation from you (unlike MySpace in which users often received dozens of completely random friend requests per week). Essentially Facebook is a "network of networks," making it a smarter — and more successful — social network than all its predecessors.
However, it only takes a few unsolicited, valueless notifications and the utility of Facebook goes down. It is simply inefficient to spend any of your precious neocortical processing capacity finding out about the lives of people who are irrelevant to you — people who will never be one of your 150 meaningful social relationships — even if they are friends of friends.
So what do you do when you find yourself in a network that is too large? One might think the logical thing would be to cull your friends list, unsubscribe from updates, and block all app notifications. But few people do this. Instead, individuals decrease their usage and delete their accounts, ultimately looking for the next new network to hitch on to. Having reached critical mass, the network, like all social networks that came before it, implodes.
But there is an alternative. The brain, after reaching critical mass, starts to shrink. It stops adding neurons and actually loses most of its weakest connections. The brain prunes its weakest links regularly and removes errant neurons in a natural process called cellular suicide. Extraneous information is filtered out and important connections become deeper. We become wiser.
What if Facebook could become wiser? Separate out the fluff and strengthen the important relationships. Allow us to efficiently nurture and groom our packs of 150, our "real" social networks, while filtering everything not directly relevant. Facebook has made some strides on this score, but they must redouble their efforts. It is Facebook's only chance at adding value.