Page last updated at 08:32 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 09:32 UK

Learning what makes Facebook tick

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, in San Francisco

Students prepare to learn the secrets of Facebook
A group of students at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley have turned their attention towards a unique course that blends popular culture with the more time-worn principles of psychology.

The Psychology of Facebook is the brainchild of Professor B J Fogg, a pioneering persuasion psychologist who founded the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford.

He says: "When Facebook came along I was one of the developers at the launch and what struck me was how there was this new form of persuasion. This mass interpersonal persuasion."

Professor Fogg says the pivotal moment came when he watched an application on the site go from "literally zero to more than a million users in a week".

He recalls that it was to do with music sharing and buying tickets and that that was when he had his "oh my gosh moment". It was quickly followed by a light bulb moment.

"Where on earth could you get a million customers in a week? That was when I said 'I want to learn more about this' and I thought the best way was to teach a class and look at how persuasion happens."

Usual coterie

It's Thursday afternoon and the sun is splitting the sky above the adobe-coloured Cordura Hall, the venue for Professor Fogg's Psychology of Facebook course. Outside there's a rag tag collection of people dodging the searing heat.

Alongside the usual coterie of students is an older crowd known simply as "visitors". These people are an assortment of entrepreneurs, angel investors, business heads and myself the only journalist.

Professor B Fogg
Facebook right now stands out from the crowd. Can they continue?
Professor BJ Fogg, Stanford University

As we wait for the technology to click into place that allows another 700 students to tune in online, Professor Fogg declares that his goal is to help everyone to become a world class expert on the psychology of Facebook.

But this is no one trick pony according to the Professor. "What we learn here isn't just relevant to Facebook. The psychology that drives Facebook relates to other online success stories, including those blockbusters yet to be invented."

"There is something enduring about what we are studying," he declares, "whereas if you are learning how to programme a Facebook application, that then could change in 30 days from now. In fact it probably will; so that knowledge breaks."

Dissects aspect

Each week the class dissects an aspect of Facebook and looks at the way it works, the psychology behind it and what impression users are trying to convey. The gamut runs from examining status updates to news feeds and from poking to writing comments.

Today the focus is on the use of profile pictures, the photograph on the front page of every Facebook entry.

The discussion is led by Psychology Senior Richard Barton, who maintains Facebook's high strike rate in this area has to do with the default picture it puts up if you don't post your own.

"Who wants a question mark in place of their face and what questions does that raise about you? Like, why are you on Facebook? And so basically Facebook sets up an environment where your friends do the persuading to get you to post a picture."

Professor Fogg contends this is at the heart of Facebook's achievements.

"What they're tapping into are some fundamental drivers and it makes it easy to satisfy those drives. Things like the need to be socially accepted and the flip side is to not be rejected."

Class experiment

The other strand to Professor Fogg's persuasion theory has to do with motivation and outcomes, questioning why users post a certain type of picture and why they constantly change them or not.

Richard Barton, Psychology Senior
How does the Facebook 'question mark' persuade users?

To illustrate his point he conducts a class experiment asking people to write out how they want to be regarded based purely on their profile mugshot.

The findings are revealing:

"Fun, outgoing, nature loving."

"I was too lazy to rotate my picture and then I had the idea that if I left it you would think I was cool and good looking." "I'm hot."

"I want to remind my children that I was young once."

"Make people think about peace."

"Web 2.0 revolutionary and world traveller."

Professor Fogg says this random sample proves that behind even the innocent act of posting a profile picture, the psychology of persuasion in managing your image or the impression you give off is at play.

And he stresses that albeit unconsciously, Facebook's unbridled success lies in getting users to to do the work for them with friends persuading friends to post pictures, comments, or upload applications.

"I would say they were lucky and have been responsive to users but I don't think they are persuasion masterminds."

Straightforward tools

While luck might have played its part in turning Facebook into a major force in social networking, the entrepreneurs attending this course are looking for straightforward tools to help their businesses hit the jackpot.

Rob Ross has developed the Footsies application for Facebook and is working on others. For him the course is a portal into how he can make his business more relevant.

He says: "This opens a door that has not been opened before. This is going to change the game."

Student Roman David agrees: "It's beyond dollars and cents. That is part of it but its also where the opportunities are for entrepreneurs and about how the world is changing."

Professor Fogg says while his class is about trying to understand what makes Facebook tick, the people behind the site have a similar task to ensure it remains a dominant player.

"Facebook right now stands out from the crowd. Can they continue? So far with its fifty million plus users they're doing a pretty good job."

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