Porter Novelli

The social media word of the week is “sharepocalypse.” Serial Internet entrepreneur Nova Spivack just launched Bottlenose, a tool designed to remedy the information overload induced by tweets and Facebook status updates. Tech pundits cite Zuckerberg’s Law, the prediction that the rate of information sharing doubles every year.

Facebook has encouraged this growth through subtle tweaks and wholesale overhauls of its platform, native content, and privacy settings. Increasing reach of status updates has been a key part of its strategy, beginning with the launch of an “Everyone” privacy setting June 2009 and followed by a new set of controls “encouraging” public sharing behavior in December 2009. The most recent changes to Facebook’s privacy controls came this past September, but so far no one has stepped up to the plate to investigate their effect.

Facebook is using social engineering to stimulate more sharing, but how successful have their revisions really been? We decided to investigate patterns in the growth of public status updates posted to the site.

The company doesn’t publicly release data on the ratio of public data to restricted data. The split in sharing has consequences for anyone mining Facebook for consumer insights, since the messages they have access to may not be representative of broader opinions. Like the drunk stubbornly looking for his keys under the lamppost because that’s the only place he can see, analyzing a flawed dataset may provide support but questionable illumination. So how can we start to understand how the new privacy options are changing sharing behavior?

To find out, Porter Novelli measured the volume of publicly posted English language status updates. Shockingly, the most recent changes have transformed sharing behavior in a way that seems to send Zuckerberg’s Law into retirement. Comparing average posting volume for the three-week periods pre- and post- settings change, public posting of status messages declined an astonishing 93%.

As new privacy controls launched the second week of September (the first dashed red line), the rate of status update sharing immediately declined as Facebook addicts opted-in to the update. The major changes announced at the F8 conference September 22nd (the second dashed red line) halted the slide, and sharing briefly increased. But the changes gradually rolled out over the span of a month, and the continued slide in volume indicates that users confronted with the new options tended to adopt more stringent privacy settings.

It would seem that Facebook’s changes are curbing sharing. Our hypothesis is that it’s much more likely that this behavior is not going away so much as it is transforming, from status updates to “frictionless sharing.” As Mark Zuckerberg noted in his Q&A session after this summer’s announcement of group chat and video calling, apps and mobile access increasingly drive social sharing. Ticker posts from applications broadcasting Washington Post news articles and Spotify tracks seem to be replacing deliberately posted status updates; only the most share-worthy updates are being deemed fit for public consumption.

What else can slow down social sharing? Facebook only rolled out their new privacy controls in September, which raises the question: What caused that big dip in activity in late August? This timeframe, signified by the yellow section of the line graph, is concurrent with Hurricane Irene’s journey up the Eastern Seaboard and subsequent landfall in the Northeast. Apparently, it takes an act of God to stop people from sharing on Facebook.

This post originally appeared on Commpro.biz on January 10, 2012.

1 Comment

  1. Alan A.

    This is some great analysis and insights Matt. I would add the hypothesis that the roll out of the privacy controls raised awareness through the visual focus on the privacy controls and the in-page help pop-ups. It also was the right timing, since there is a growing sense about how our online profiles define our personal brand and how to target the content on those networks more specifically to the audiences in our lives.