The real effect of The Facebook Effect.

The last few days were eventful for Facebook and its ever so precocious young founder.

First, Facebook went public to much fanfare. Here is how the Mercury News summed it all up:

“After opening at a price of $42.05, shares of Facebook’s wildly anticipated initial public offering closed a mere 23 cents above its pre-set price of $38. The failure of Facebook’s shares to rise well past $38 was seen as a disappointment by some observers. Nonetheless, it remained the most successful technology IPO in history and set a record for the number of shares sold — more than 567 million — in a company’s stock market debut.”

Then before we could absorb that news we learn, in stark contrast to the hullabaloo of the IPO, our young CEO-HERO gets married before a humble gathering of 100 people ostensibly there to celebrate the bride’s graduation.

With two such momentous events surrounding our CEO-HERO, we saw endless stories about Mark Zuckerberg as the driving force of Facebook. Even more stories were written about whether Facebook was a good investment for individuals.

But what interested me more was really understanding what was Facebook’s secret sauce that made it worth a $100 B (“B” stands for breathless also – ya’ know). Why did this stock seem to defy all rational evaluation?

No one seemed to really answer that question well.

I knew early on (by about 2010) that social marketing and Facebook were going to be powerful when I observed: “social media was not just a tactic to be tacked onto the backside of a traditional campaign”. Yet everyone, me included, was surprised at the speed of Facebook adoption. It was breathtaking.

Many ascribed that stellar growth to the brilliance of Mark. Yet, it just did not feel right to me to assign Facebook’s unprecedented growth to his vision or drive alone. I give the kid credit – but giving him so much credit just left me unsatisfied.

And because everyone ascribed Facebook’s stellar growth to some alchemy borne of CEO-HERO brilliance, people are willing to suspend critical thought to its value and its future.

For me, the Facebook mystery deepened. At a most fundamental level, why was Facebook worth so much?

The answer came to me in a blinding flash from a recent Harvard Business Review article (“Your brain on Facebook” ) that describes the neuroscience behind Facebook’s meteoric rise. In fact, “a decade’s worth of work reveals some unexpected quirks of the brain that all link to one big idea” – we are social creatures with a “social brain” and that drives a lot of behavior in a lot of unexpected ways.

“Here’s how the social brain works. There is a “default” brain network that is always “on” and it is involved in thinking about yourself and other people.  When not doing anything else, the brain’s favorite pastime is to think about people. We actually have to suppress the activity in this region when we want to do any active processing, such as doing math.” But in the absence of any other cognitive activity – our social brain kicks in!

This explains why Facebook can capture so much of our attention because, neurologically speaking, we are wired to be addicted to being social and “connecting” and “liking”. And like any other addiction, the reward centers in our brain seek ever more satisfaction just to stay “normal.” If you spend a lot of time on Facebook, you are basically “high” all the time. That makes it really hard to focus, think deeply, or perhaps learn something new.

Now that gives a new spin to the term The Facebook Effect because we are, in effect, wired to become Facebook junkies.

That explains, for example, the irrational exuberance the market places in Facebook’s future. It also puts a new spin on Mark Zuckerberg’s success. No doubt he is clever but maybe his real luck was that he became the first efficient digital distributor of social addiction.

Gives one pause – doesn’t it? As well it should and you would not be alone. More and more “resisters”, people to who shun Facebook, are coming forward as an emerging trend. More and more, people are getting ready to kick the Facebook habit:

Over 82.2% of people would not pay for Facebook according to a HuffingtonPost poll – April 25, 2012

-  As Facebook grows, millions say, ‘no, thanks’ – USAToday May 16, 2012

-    “Facebook Loses $10mm From General Motors – HuffingtonPost May 17, 2012

-  Silicon Valley Can Do Better Than Facebook – TechCrunch May 20, 2012

What’s next for Facebook as it starts business Monday morning as a public company? I have no idea but while many of us may be hooked on Facebook now – it only takes one disruptor to knock the addiction from our system.

The only question is who or what will that be.

Judy Shapiro

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