Is Facebook a Black Hole?

June 14, 2008

I had a really interesting conversation today with a couple folks who know a lot about social media and technology. John Della Volpe is founder of SocialSphere, a consulting firm that helps big corporations figure out how to capitalize on what John calls the “collaboration economy,” and Paul Gaffney is COO of Desktone, a desktop virtualization company that is doing some very cool things.

We were talking about what SchoolPulse needs to be to get traction with the 45 million parents of school-aged kids in America. Ours is very much a GenX crowd — we are targeting parents aged 35-50 — and very few of those people are using Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, or the other big social networking platforms that attract the GenY crowd. While LinkedIn has pretty good penetration (20 million users averaging 41 years old and $110,000 income according to the Industry Standard), that is about professional lives, not family lives. These GenX parents are a tricky crowd to attract and retain. They are incredibly busy, they didn’t grow up using technology to network, and they aren’t going to engage with something that doesn’t deliver tangible value. If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about.

John’s view is that Facebook has the mass and momentum to evolve into the only social networking platform. All others beware: Without a tight connection to Facebook, you won’t survive. Paul used the analogy of a black hole, drawing all matter into its center. Can this really be true? Does social networking really have the same dynamics as the search business?

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Which brings us back to SchoolPulse. We’re not a social networking company, and we are not a web site. We are creating a resource to help parents organize and streamline their busy lives. To help them keep up with their kids, really. The design, the language, the tone, the user experience all have to be consonant with that mission. We threw up our alpha site in January, a beta site in April (we are big believers in rapid iteration informed by market feedback) and have learned a lot, but we have a very long way to go. But every day, we understand more clearly what we need to be to engage a million happy members. It amazes me how quickly we are learning.

I’ll share more details of our version 2.0 platform in a future post.