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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Undergraduate Viewpoints on Social Networks and Music

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Following is a guest post by my partner Jason Mendelson.  All of the thoughts and grammar errors are his.  All of the formatting errors are mine.

Every year I go back to the University of Michigan and spend a day teaching undergrads in the economics department.   I’ve been doing it for a few years now and it’s a way to give back to the program.  Specifically, one of my former professors, Jan Gerson had a huge impact on me and I promised that I’d come back every year (if I ever got “smart”) and impart some knowledge.  I’m not sure that I ever got smart, but I do like to visit Ann Arbor

This year, I did something a bit differently.  Instead of me pontificating the whole time, I decided to ask some questions re: social networks and music usage, as I’ve been looking at several deals in the space.  I figured the undergrad crowd (of which I’m now twice their age, egads) would provide some interesting answers.  I’m not pretending this is a significantly accurate sample, etc., so take it for what it is worth. 

Over the course of the day, I was able to poll approximately 300 students, by my estimation.  Here were the “results.” 

  1. Students who said they DIDN’T use Facebook:  2.  Yes, 2.  And one of them was a 37 year-old undergrad (great guy, too).  I asked how many of them were “regular” users, as defined by 7 times a week and all but a dozen or so confirmed they were “regular” Facebook users.
  2. I asked how many of them used other social networks, or similar things, Flickr, Twitter, etc..  Shockingly 2 people indicated they used Twitter, 10 used MySpace about 20 used Flickr.  I was blown away.  My guess would be that they were using several networks.  MySpace was deemed “has been” material. Even for pictures, they are all using Facebook. 
  3. I asked how much of their “email” traffic was on Facebook and the vast majority said somewhere around 20% and growing. Many of they wanted my opinion on the Microsoft investment with most everyone thinking it was stupid. None of them could think of an applicable business model for Facebook and they all claimed they’d seen little to no advertising.  This was interesting in that there was a strong visceral reaction to the MSFT investment.
  4. I asked how many of them “bought music legally.”  No more that 15-20% indicated that they bought music legally.
  5. I asked how many of them “stole music” – 100%.  And all but a couple indicated that a majority of their music was stolen.
  6. Biggest concern of stealing music was not getting caught, it was that they “felt badly” for stealing it.
  7. Almost no one buys CDs, but those that do are all into classic rock and jazz (Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC).  I was relieved to discover that “classic rock” is still “classic rock.”  If the definition had become “Pearl Jam or Nirvana” I would have had to kill myself. 
  8. I also had the opportunity to meet with a dozen or so folks after particular classes.  One question that I asked them was whether or not they felt computers aided in their education or detracted from it.  Almost unanimously, they all thought that computers detracted from their education because of all the distractions of web surfing, media consumption and social network participation.  I was surprised of their self awareness and a bit frightened by the answer.
  9. Best question of the day to me was:  “How did you make plans with your friends to go to parties if you didn’t have a cell or email?”  I let them know about a quaint little device supplied to all dorm rooms called a telephone. 

I’ve decided that next year I’m going to come even better prepared to ask questions and try to actually add some science to it – instead of asking questions in the open, fill out a questionnaire, etc.

I was not surprised by the attitudes around music, but was surprised about the uniformity of Facebook usage and the lack of any other social network in their lives.

Anyways, there you go – my un-scientific, scientific study.  It was fun. 

  • http://borismsilver.wordpress.com Boris M. Silver

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Facebook is the mainstream middle path — it’s not a techie driven network like Twitter (although I think this will find a more mainstream path down the line) and it’s not some spam/annoying/sketchy network like MySpace.

    Kudos to Jason for taking the effort to reach out to my generation to hear what is actually going on. My company has been able to build a massive user base on Facebook for the exact reason that we understand Facebook because we use it ALL the time.

    Every time someone brings up the MySpace coming platform and the massive user numbers there, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

    NO ONE that I know has a MySpace and I’d like to think I have a pretty large and diverse set of people in my social network. If Jason had gone a step further and asked for word associations to MySpace, he would’ve probably heard stuff like “sketchy” “alternative” “annoying” “flashing spam” “outsiders” “goth”, etc.

    My generation is going to use Facebook and as we get older, we will continue using it. The kids younger than us will also make their entrance onto Facebook and fill our spots as we get older. Eventually, my generation will replace the older people right now who aren’t computer savvy and don’t use Facebook.

    Conclusion: Facebook is clean, mainstream, and it the only social network that people around me actually use and find valuable consistently.

    Again, kudos to Jason for stepping outside of the tech world and connecting with the actual young people who use this. Go to any college and I am sure you will the same results.

  • http://sturgeon.tumblr.com Kyle S

    Interesting, if unsurprising, data. (I’m only four years older than the seniors he might have talked to, so it’s unsurprising to me at least :) my quick take aways:

    1) These same kids were all using myspace 3 years ago when they were in high school – now none of them are. That should scare facebook.

    2) Facebook’s growth is incredible. Wow. If it keeps growing this fast for just a couple more years, they won’t even have to be that creative in coming up with new revenue streams to be a $15b company.

    3) Anecdotal, yet somewhat related data: I started using facebook my last semester in college, spring 2004. It has obviously changed a lot since then, and I still log in quite frequently (usually once or twice a day). However, I wonder why I do – I don’t quite understand what I “should” be doing on fb. I have no interest in 99% of the applications developed on the new platform. I log in, see what my friends have been up to over the past couple days, and log out. Maybe I just don’t get it.

    4) One of the most frequent banners I see running on fb is for classmates.com. I don’t see them getting too many signups from the fb crowd (didn’t fb destroy their business model?). How high of a CPC/CPM could they really get if that’s the best they can do in terms of ads?

    5) Areas for fb growth:
    a) Online marketplace. This seems like a no-brainer, a craigslist with built-in trust. I know it’s there now, but I imagine this could someday become a big earner for them… if they can hold onto people after they leave college.
    b) hyper-contextual ads based off of mining profile data. another no-brainer, but given the above data, will fb users notice them? I say yes. My friend who runs a web startup in his spare time bought a reasonable amount of fb ads last year and got surprisingly good response; so much so, in fact, that he plans on another buy this year.
    c) a good online music store. i’m sure there are tons of folks working on doing this. i hope they succeed. to the extent that broadband becomes even more ubiquitous than it is now, what better than to keep music in the cloud, and what better for facebook than to be that gatekeeper? even a “traditional” online music store, done right, could succeed based on the strength of peer trust for recommendations, “taste-making”, etc.

    sorry for making this a facebook-centric post – seems i’ve got that on the brain these days…

  • Joe Johannsensen

    nice post, and generally reflects my experiences too.

    ps Nirvana & Pearl Jam are dangerously close to being called classic rock…

  • Jason

    So if all “grammar errors” are mine, can you at least take credit for yours? :)

    “Grammatical errors” – i love adverbs.

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    From an email: Remarkably coincidentally, I have spent some time recently with high school kids and have engaged in similar discussions about culture and social networks. Facebook is also the go-to network for essentially all of the kids 14-18 and there is little use of other sites other than to “screw around”. Tellingly, many of the kids cited the availability of an increasingly rich array of apps within Facebook as the glue that will keep them attached.

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