The way people at Facebook (FB) talk about Facebook, the social network is about sharing and connecting—nourishing human bonds that might otherwise wither because of geography, busy schedules, or laziness. According to Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, though, Facebook’s success is not due to sharing, but to the habit, familiar to all Facebook users, of anonymously viewing other people’s pages—colloquially known as stalking.
Piskorski has researched how people behave on social networks from EHarmony to Zynga (ZNGA), and he has laid out his findings in a book, A Social Strategy: How We Profit From Social Media, due out next week. His argument on the value of stalking to Facebook comes from a comparison between the dynamics of the world’s leading social network and those of Mixi (2121:JP), a similar site founded in Japan in February 2004, the same month Facebook began in the U.S.
One of the few differences between the two is that for most of its history, Mixi let users know who had viewed their pages, while Facebook leaves users free to peruse others’ content in secret. While Facebook’s meteoric growth trajectory is well-known, Mixi’s plateaued after several years, and Facebook was eventually able to surpass it in Mixi’s home market. Assurance of stalking anonymity, Piskorski says, is “one of the leading causes of Facebook’s success.”
According to Piskorski’s research, 80 percent of the clicks on Facebook are related to viewing others’ content, while only 8 percent to 9 percent are related to posting one’s own. For most of Mixi’s history, 60 percent of activity was viewing other people’s content, and 10 percent consisted of people checking who had visited their page. Mixi hasn’t shown the same network effects that Facebook does: Mixi users with 50 friends view only as much overall content as those with 25 friends.
LinkedIn (LNKD), as Mixi did, tells users who has viewed their profile, and it has hardly been a failure. But Pirskorski points out that LinkedIn serves a very different purpose: professional search. The information on a LinkedIn page—education, work experience—hardly excites our inner Peeping Toms. We look at LinkedIn pages not out of curiosity but from professional necessity.
On the other hand, Mixi is full of intimate content, often more than Facebook—precisely the sort of stuff that might tempt prurient interest. “There is more personal content; it’s not just pictures and links and videos” but often intimate diary writing, says Piskorski. Yet Mixi users peek at other people’s pages much less often than Facebook users do. While on Mixi, it has been mostly women who viewed other women’s pages, on Facebook it’s mostly men who view women’s content. On Mixi, men tended to view a woman’s page only if the woman had visited their page (something to which Mixi had alerted them).
Piskorski doesn’t use the word “stalking,” referring instead to “search.” The way he describes it, the ability to anonymously peruse others’ content isn’t necessarily creepy. It allows users to look for points of commonality without risk of awkwardness. In academic terms, it is one of the ways an effective social network can remove inefficiencies from social interaction.
There are reasons to question Piskorski’s emphasis on the centrality of search/stalking to Facebook’s growth. Japanese norms, both on and offline, are not necessarily the same as elsewhere in the world, and Mixi was created with a focus on crafting tight-knit relationships rather than casting a wide net. Yet there’s some evidence that Mixi sees something in Piskorski’s argument. In 2012 it changed its settings: Users are no longer alerted when someone visits their pages.