Facebook recently displaced Orkut as the top social network in India. This is no mean feat. Social Networking is one of the few spaces where a first-mover advantage can mean a lot. The network efficiencies and advantages built up by the first mover are not only difficult to replicate, there is also rarely any reason for users to migrate from an existing network to another. This point was clearly lost on the hundreds of random social networks that mushroomed in India in the 2005-07 period. Social networking is usually a winner-takes-all market and for Facebook to come in, well after Orkut was well-established, and to wrest the advantage away from it is a huge deal.
Orkut was the first real product that brought social networking to India and very soon, it meant for social networking what Google meant for search. “Orkutting” caught on as a term. One must note that this rarely happens in the internet industry. With such a large clutter of sites to choose from, a particular site rarely defines its category in a way that Orkut did in India. When a site starts defining a category, it is extremely difficult for another site to, not just overtake it in terms of usage but also start definiig the category. In fact, more people I know spend their time Facebooking that Orkutting these days.
How did this happen? What worked for Facebook? How did it manage to pull something like this off? I’ve often asked people around me why they made the transition. And here’s what I gather from my conversations with other users:
Bringing Privacy into the market: The Indian male stalker psyche definitely helped people move towards Facebook. The fact that everything about you was so public with no privacy settings whatsoever on Orkut was highly unnerving for a lot of users, especially girls who received random friend requests from unknown wierdos. Facebook’s privacy feature was the first real antidote to that and prompted many to move to Facebook. Sure Orkut did that too soon after but that was the start of Orkut getting into a “Copy-that-Facebook-feature” spiral which didn’t win them a lot of respect with the users.
Everything under one roof: Facebook in its current form, had it not been so successful, could probably have been used as an example of clutter in user experience design workshops. Strangely, the fact that users could do everything from managing their pictures to playing games in one place really helped. Features were rolled out in a phased manner. For users who were already addicted to the site and comfortable with the interface, it probably wasn’t feature overload as much as it was some added utility.
Social RSS: That’s how I would like to refer to the concept of Facebook feeds. While the Orkut design centers around the user and gives him a view of the network with himself at the centre, Facebook gives a more non-centric view of the network featuring feeds from all his friends at various points of time. I have a feeling this could just have clicked for the Indian psyche where everyone loves to know everything happening in everyone else’s life. I won’t have any data to support this but I will have a hard time believing that the average Facebooker in India doesn’t like this feature.
Social Gaming: Social gaming is the most time-consuming activity on Facebook and many game developers continue to side with Facebook ignoring Orkut. While this may not have been the main drawer in bandwidth-starved India (or so we would believe), it definitely had a major impact in appealing to the next generation of net users, especially the ones who became active netizens towards the middle of this decade.
Many believe that this was waiting to happen given a similar trend in Asia where Facebook displaced Friendster, the #1 social network in most SE Asian countries a couple of years back. The reasons for Facebook’s success in S.E. Asia were much more different though, riding largely on a very well-designed mobile app. S.E. Asia continues to thrive on mobile access to the internet and Facebook’s success here was less about the product and more about the added convenience of mobile access.
Facebook is an interesting and rare example of a late entrant taking the market by storm, redefining the rules (Facebook Connect, Open Like) and eventually dominating the market. Google did it a decade ago in a space which no one was too interested to enter in. Facebook succeeded in doing it in a space that everyone was too keen about and some were already dominating. And like Google back then, Facebook with its virtual currency platform may just lead the way to ,monetizing it as well.
What do you guys think? Opinions?
This post was first published at Venturati.
Sangeet Paul Choudary is a leader in the New Ventures group at Intuit Asia-Pac.