What the "Almost Facebook" Can Teach You About Creativity
This is an excerpt from my new book, The Creative Curve. In early 2004, a social network was launched at an Ivy League university. Created by students, it was among the first social networks to use people’s real names. It spread like a contagion.
Seeing the potential, the team took a leave of absence from their studies to focus full-time on the start-up.
But this isn’t the story of Facebook.
It’s the story of CampusNetwork, a social network launched at Columbia University mere weeks before Facebook became a phenomenon at Harvard.
CampusNetwork was cofounded by Adam Goldberg, the class president of the School of Engineering, and Wayne Ting, the class president of Columbia College. Not only was CampusNetwork launched a few weeks earlier than Facebook, it was also dramatically more advanced. The original version of Facebook was little more than a virtual directory, complete with pages devoted to basic profiles, friends, and “poking.” Many of the features that would eventually make Facebook a media disruptor, such as photo sharing, the wall, and the activity feed, came much later.
CampusNetwork not only started with photo-sharing and a wall where members could comment on their friends’ profiles, its activity feed made it possible for anyone to see what was happening across the entire network, just like Facebook’s future News Feed feature.
After going live in the spring of 2004, Goldberg and Ting moved to Montreal to work full-time on CampusNetwork, while the Facebook team moved to Silicon Valley to do the same. In the fall, the CampusNetwork team embarked on an all-out war against Facebook, launching the site in other Ivy League schools while also making forays into Big Twelve schools, which at that point had never heard of Facebook.
Along the way, school papers picked up on and began devoting articles to the rivalry. Once CampusNetwork launched at Stanford University, Stanford Daily asked one student, Eva Colen, about the differences between the two. Facebook, Colen replied, was inferior: “There is no community whatsoever, it’s more like a classifieds section… You can build relationships and express your personality on CampusNetwork, whereas [Facebook] only allows you to add friends and stalk crushes.”
But for all its advanced features, CampusNetwork stalled and ultimately failed. Outside of Columbia University, Goldberg and Ting weren’t able to compete seriously against Facebook anywhere. Eventually, feeling defeated, Ting returned to school in the spring of 2005, and Goldberg joined him the following semester.
Why did CampusNetwork flop? Why aren’t the names of Adam Goldberg and Wayne Ting emblazoned in the public consciousness? If the site offered more advanced features from the start— ones, I might add, that later contributed to Facebook’s enormous success—why did they not work for CampusNetwork?
In short: less is more.
Looking back, Ting now realizes that the sheer density of features contained in his app, which he assumed would leapfrog CampusNetwork over Facebook, was actually a core reason it failed.
How, though? Ting told me that at the time, people held radically different views about digital identity and privacy. In the early 2000s, we still used pseudonyms and non-descriptive usernames online. CampusNetwork asked users not only to put aside pseudonyms and use their real names, but also to share photos and updates with their network.
Says Ting, “We were asking them to make too many leaps at once.”
Facebook, by contrast, added more features in a gradual way as users became more and more comfortable sharing information online. David Kirkpatrick, a technology journalist and the author of The Facebook Effect, remembers how barren early Facebook was. “It was essentially nothing other than a place to put a profile and to connect with other people.” Ting once told a BBC interviewer, “What Facebook did that was incredibly smart was to hook them with the friending and the poking, and then they learned with their users, and added functionality slowly over time as users became more comfortable.”
Popular reaction to a new idea, product, or service is governed by two contradictory urges: the desire for familiarity and the passion for novelty. We as consumers want things to be new enough to be exciting, but not so new that they’re scary. It turns out that the human pursuit of both familiarity and novelty results in a bell-shaped curve relationship between preference and familiarity.
This is the creative curve, and it is the key to understanding the CampusNetwork story.
CampusNetwork failed because it was filled with features that were just too new. Facebook succeeded by introducing fewer new features at a slower pace. Facebook took off because they hit the creative sweet spot, while CampusNetwork whiffed because they landed too far to the left.
What would have happened if CampusNetwork had launched its app with fewer features? After all, it had a head start, a smart Ivy League team, and a determination to grow. It’s hard to answer that question, but we do know this much: CampusNetwork didn’t altogether understand what its audience wanted. Too much novelty wasn’t a recipe for success.
This is as true now as it was back in 2004. Many creatives think that maximizing novelty is the route to a creative blockbuster. But they’re wrong. Cramming your product chock full of novel twists is one of the fastest ways to the scrapheap.
When you’re building a new app, or developing a new socially-enabled platform, each novel feature you design should have a ton of familiarity infrastructure built around it.
It’s a strategy that many successful digital companies have followed. Take, for example, Bumble. It’s a pretty standard dating app, with one novel twist (women have to reach out first). Or Snapchat. It’s built like a run-of-the-mill messaging app, only instead of text users send auto-deleting pictures. In both cases, users weren’t asked to change their digital habits too much (only enough to make the service new and exciting).
Balancing novel and familiar features will smooth the path to mainstream adoption, and will help your app, site, or service avoid the mistake that killed CampusNetwork.
Too much new will ensure your product doesn’t get a chance to grow old.
Article and image(s) via Social Media Today