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"Social networking can be incredibly useful in consumer retail"

Chris Hughes thinks social networking can be incredibly useful in the consumer retail sector.

Chris Hughes | Print Edition: April 18, 2010

Social networking is like email; it impacts every field. However, it is more pronounced in a few areas such as politics and business.... I think social networking can be incredibly useful in the consumer retail sector. Starbucks is a brilliant example of how social networking sites can be used effectively. Business prospects can be enhanced in so many ways: By creating communities, pages, etc. The impact on other businesses is relatively small but a lot of people are experimenting with new ideas. I definitely think there are opportunities in other industries, too.

Social networking sites enable entrepreneurs to connect to other people who are interested in the same ideas. This helps to build teams more quickly and more efficiently. Last year, a lot of ideas came out of the woodwork that used social networking sites to create and support new business. A couple of them were particularly interesting, like Boxee, which is an interface that sets an application that allows users to download and organise Web content, especially videos, on their TVs and even their computers.

Another area which has great possibilities is science and academics. People can share their work and engage in a debate on a public or semi-public forum. Previously, one had to present a paper or write in a journal and wait for colleagues to comment on it. The other way was to attend conferences where scientists and academicians exchanged ideas for a few days only. Now, they can publish their work on a social networking site and get feedback in no time.

Not to forget, the field of video and film can be completely transformed by social networking sites. I am not saying that everyone can make an Avatar. But people love to tell stories and now they can do it using technology that comes pre-packaged in an application.

Social networking can contribute to politics in countries like India, but technology must be used differently in different places. In India, creating a website like my.barackobama. com will not be as effective as in the US because the number of Internet users here is much smaller. On the other hand, the number of mobile users is very high. So, technology must adapt to this format to be more useful. However, irrespective of the protocol which is used, social networking lowers the bar for people to share information. It is easier to convey what you care about and what you stand for. Twenty years ago, you had to call people one by one and talk to them directly. It is now much easier to connect and form core groups, many of whom have flowered into political movements.

In all this, what gives Facebook an edge over its competitors is its ability to create trust. We understand that people's relationships and the information they share is very personal. Some want to share only with the people they know, like their family and friends. Facebook has built an environment that people trust and are comfortable in, which is most important.

We are also a business.... Advertising is a revenue source for Facebook and there are several types of ads there.... But the future of advertising on a place like Facebook is much more around what we call social engagement ads. In another words, a company can come and see a piece of content on Facebook, which then opens up the possibility for people to interact with it, to click there and say, 'Oh! This is interesting', to comment on it, to send it to a friend to be posted on their profile. There are all sorts of ways in which people can interact with that content.

What is really interesting and promising to me is this vision where advertising stops being about pushing things on people and instead offering something and then enabling people better interested in it to say, 'Oh! This is what I want to tell my friends.' So, the paradigm will be to show a sexy model with a car and say you should go and buy this, and then someone to say, 'Oh! I bought that car and it's amazing' or 'This thing, in particular, I really like about it' or 'Here is a photo of me in my new car and it's great.' Facebook is just beginning honestly to experiment with all of these different advertising opportunities.

The web changes so quickly, and it's such a dynamic place that we have to be constantly open to change. For the past six years, when people have been engaged on Facebook, they just typed in Facebook.com in their web browser. But 5-10 years from now, most people who will engage on Facebook will never come to Facebook.com or need to come to it with the same regularity that they do today. This means, I envision Facebook to be distributed across the web.

Recently, The Economic Times partnered with Facebook around the national budget to every day enable people to have a conversation about what they thought about the Budget—what should be the top priority and what should be part of the dialogue and part of the debate. The Indian Finance Minister then met with The Economic Times to talk about the comments and feedback they got through Facebook and through our actions on The Economic Times website.

It is important to note that people didn't even have to come to Facebook.com to engage in this debate. That's a revolution on the web which will only continue to increasingly organise the content that exists in a social fashion.

Chris Hughes is the Co-founder, Facebook

(Based on Hughes's speech at the Conclave and an exclusive interview with BT)

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