What do you recall seeing in your Facebook feed recently?

The following are recurring items in mine: an e-card character inventory of a melancholic young woman who has sobered up barely enough to realize her iPad is actually an Etch-a-Sketch; side-by-side comparisons of an ad for a Whopper and an actual Whopper; a funny-cuz-it’s-true reminder that the American worldview positions all of Europe as “pussies;” and an image depicting a Cardassian making an unkind (but deserved) reference to the Kardashians.

Some of my friends are sharing their thoughts on the impending election, but I only get to see one or two of those thoughts in my feed – the rest are a full click away, clumped in with other friends who are talking about the “Republican party.”

As Facebook’s EdgeRank puts more emphasis on photos and videos, the real content, the meaningful content, becomes harder to discover, and as a result users are moving in droves to the niche social networks that provide something more substantial than meme-sharing.

Sasha Pasulka

Facebook’s results just aren’t that relevant anymore; one could say they’ve gone the way of Google, but at least Google had the good sense to IPO before that happened.

And perhaps the Google comparison is generous. I recall another social network, once poised for greatness, now reduced to a stream of “funny” photos and spam. I switched to Facebook five years ago, after MySpace became too much noise and too little signal.

As investors respond to Facebook’s IPO, it may be time to take a closer look at how Facebook is responding to its own unprecedented growth.

The Rise of the Niche Network

Niche social networks have existed as long as social networks, but they’re quickly evolving from the Internet’s wallflowers into the belles of the ball.

Pinterest passed the 10 million unique user mark faster than anything on the Internet that has users. Almost every techie you know is on Quora. Up-and-coming names in entertainment are lining up to partner with self-improvement network Mightybell. DailyBurn and its myriad competitors are building weight-loss networks, while Foodspotting and Oink are growing foodie-focused networks. Waze has raised over $50 million to build, essentially, a social network around traffic. Marketers, disappointed by Facebook filtering their posts, are redoubling their efforts on Twitter.

Users are spending more time on these networks, and less on Facebook. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Facebook is hustling to partner with the best and brightest of these newbies, but so far these partnerships are only transferring Facebook’s value out of Facebook. How many new users do you think Facebook added because they partnered with Pinterest?

Web 3.0 clearly looks to include the rise of the niche social network. The growing online population has maxed out the potential of one-layer-for-all networks like Facebook. We need better-curated paths for our information, both sharing and receiving, and Facebook trying to build out these targeted networks is a lot like Google trying to build out social networks: It’s already a younger man’s game.

Is Facebook’s EdgeRank – designed to better curate the data in users’ news feeds as the network grows – actually promoting the rise of the niche network?

EdgeRank’s Jagged Slices

Let’s review some of EdgeRank’s “rules.” While these aren’t documented, the consensus among social media experts is that EdgeRank sorts stories by the following rules, among others:

  • Video posts get top priority, followed by photos
  • Posts by Facebook Pages are less likely to show up in a feed than posts by people
  • Posts linking to third-party sites are usually filtered out, unless more than one friend shared or commented on them

Taken individually, these rules make a lot of sense. People are more likely to engage with rich content like photos and videos. Posts by Facebook Pages are often sales-focused, impersonal, or otherwise irrelevant. And links to third-party sites take users to third-party sites.

But in combination, these sensible rules have served to make Facebook, over the past six months, something of a meme-sharing site. We used to email funny pictures to our friends, coworkers and family. Now we repost them on Facebook. And EdgeRank puts them back in our feeds, again and again.

What gets left out is the stuff that differentiates the people in our lives from the digital memes – the actual status updates that let us know what’s going on in the lives of the people we care about: what they’re thinking, the interesting articles they’ve read or written, the content they’ve generated rather than laughed at.

In its struggle to remain meaningful in spite of its growth, Facebook has implemented rules that make its news feed feel more like a Cheezburger site. And while we all like to check in on the Cheezburger network, that’s not exactly the value proposition driving Facebook’s $5 billion IPO.

I Can Haz Facebook?

But other than sharing funny photos, what else do we expect Facebook users to feel comfortable doing? Those of us who work professionally in social media struggle to keep up with the visibility changes – what gets posted to whom, when, where, why and how. The typical user long ago raised a white flag.

Agile development – essentially the strategy Mark Zuckerberg outlined in his SEC-filing manifesto “The Hacker Way” – works really well for startups. I’m not sure if Zuckerberg understands that it’s not working well for Facebook, that the ongoing modifications frustrate and distance a user base long removed from Silicon Valley. If they’re going to bear their hearts and souls to your platform, they need you to be stable.

If he doesn’t get it right soon – or at least leave it alone until people get used to it – he’s going to hand a good chunk of the value he’s created to up-and-coming niche networks who are hungry for it, and who now have the advantage of not having to answer to Wall Street.

Sasha Pasulka is the VP of Marketing at Pop Salad and a digital strategist at Red Magnet Media. You can follow her on Twitter @sashrocks

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  • ellegold

    @sashrocks:twitter  thank you for this.  Really interesting observations about EdgeRank and the rise of niche social networks.

  • Guest

    Facebook is so popular that anything posted there is effectively public. Particularly for my more arcane interests, I’ve chosen to share with a much more limited and understanding set of persons.

  • http://twitter.com/katemats kate matsudaira

    Very interesting and thoughtful perspective – Facebook is definitely trying to figure out what is next and how to maintain their success – but it is still hard to find the signal in the noise.

  • MM

    Great point about the frustration too-frequent modifications can cause users.  Works great for hard-core users of any site, but the casual user can get exhausted trying to keep up. Many Facebook users will adopt to the changes easily, but the fringe/late adopters may get turned off and not become the frequent visitors that makes FB so valuable.

  • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

    Great piece, Sasha. It’s interesting — I just tweeted this morning asking if anyone else had noticed they were using Facebook more since Timeline rolled out than before. I think I’m using it more now than I have in at least a couple years. But your piece got me thinking – is the content changing? And you’re right; it really is. The most popular stuff on your feed is a lot more about memes, about shared articles and funny-quotes-as-photos and things people can massively relate and respond to than it’s ever been, which makes sense for a network out to prove it can truly connect the world. You’re right that updates about people’s lives are harder to see, but I suspect that some of the Timeline features that are slowly becoming more visible might just take care of that. In other words, I wonder if this isn’t an interim period of sorts. The memes soar, but life posts, thanks to Timeline, will soar with them as Timeline continues its ascent. Staying tuned…

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    All I can say is, I think you’re right on. At least from my perspective. I am most interested in my friends’ status updates — not cool videos, shared (versus original) photos, or to what someone is currently reading or listening. Facebook has made it increasingly difficult to find out what my friends are actually sharing of themselves without having to re-set a lot of preferences for each individual. It has buried the important in the popular.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501974098 Anonymous

    Oh hey look! It’s a “Facebook is going to die” post. 

    A dime a dozen.

    • Guest

      Facebook’s not going to die. Just like MySpace, it will be around forever. People will use other sites as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501974098 Anonymous

    Oh hey look! It’s a “Facebook is going to die” post. 

    A dime a dozen.

  • http://blog.calbucci.com/ Marcelo Calbucci

    Sasha, this is a great post. You nailed it in many levels.

  • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

    Among the things I like about this post is the unremitting assumption that users will move if the service goes a direction that no longer caters to the users. May it ever be so!

  • Steve Hopkins

    You’ve identified and articulated somethig I have been noticing but hadn’t pinpointed, that I am now scrolling past a lot of garbage, looking for updates by my friends.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been on Facebook since 6/2004, and I wondered why I was getting less and less happy with it.  Your explanation makes complete sense.  Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Go back to school, Sasha!! You said, “If they’re going to bear their hearts and souls…” — the CORRECT word spelling for “bear” in this case is “bare”, “bare… hearts and souls”.

    • Anonymous

      Oops! You are totally right about this! Since this was a guest post I can’t go back in and edit it, but I don’t think I’ll make the same mistake again!

  • http://www.facebook.com/warri Victor Iniemogha

    Great post Sasha.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very good post. There’s a few things I have been working on that I am surprised no-one has realized. 1. Facebook is THE macro-social network. 2. Facebook’s APIs are now really quite good. This opens up the ability to build excellent micro-social within a Facebook macro context. It comes with the advantage of prior established contacts. It is much easier to trim a grown tree than wait for a new one to grow. 3. Streams are not necessarily the best way to interact. It is not how we interact in the real world. It reduces engagement and personality. I prefer what I term friend centric social network presentation. Switch to this mode and the dynamic changes markedly. I could go on (and on). :-) I think the world is ready for some new ideas. We are just seeing stale regurgitation of stream-centric design. Stay tuned :-)

    • Anonymous

      I love all of this! Would really enjoy hearing more of your thoughts on all this, especially what you mean by “friend centric social network presentation.”

  • Ddegabrielle

    Sasha, this the most cogent point of view I’ve read on this topic. Thanks for being both smart, and amazingly articulate. Debbie

  • http://twitter.com/JenniferCabala Jennifer Cabala

    Good stuff Sasha. I wonder if we are also adapting by putting less personal stuff on Facebook anyway. When you have hundreds of friends it seems natural to treat it like a twitter stream as opposed to a place to share the personal with far-flung friends and family.

  • http://www.biggerpockets.com Joshua Dorkin

    Niche networks allow people to focus on the topics that interest them.  The novelty of learning about your friend’s cat or 4th cousin’s baby’s dance video wears off after a while for most.  These niche networks also allow users to open up about things that they often wouldn’t have any interest in sharing or talking about with their friend/family/business circles.

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