Social networks tend to draw either hot or cold reactions from people. I’ve always been in the latter camp.
Until my wife and I were on an extended trip around the world and we were forced, for the first time, to take Facebook seriously.
“I’ll find you on Facebook,” said some fellow travelers, new friends we had met, as we exited a hostel.
“Umm, we’re not really into those online social networks. We don’t have an account on Facebook.”
“Oh, by the end of your trip you definitely will.”
It was an ominous prophecy. And it wasn’t the last time we heard it. We would increasingly meet more and more people who would ask for our Facebook accounts before we ultimately succumbed to creating one.
The non-conformist in me sees these social networks as being in conflict with the notion of an open web. Sites like Facebook are jealously protective of keeping you, and your data, in house. Once you enter your information, you can’t get it out. And what an odd place to be forced to spend your time — everyone’s preoccupied with pyramid scheme-themed games involving zombies, playing online Scrabble or throwing virtual sheep at each other to get one another’s attention. Are these apps actually useful?
And that’s the big question — what’s the value of Facebook? Why are developers scrambling to create apps for a site that people apparently only use to waste time? What does Facebook bring to the internet today? How should developers and users look to these web applications, and its emerging development platforms, with respect to the open web?
There are certainly better ways to spend your energy than hanging out on a sort of a secular mini-internet. It’s puzzling.
Maybe it’s the fact that Facebook (and, let us not forget, MySpace) has become a communication vehicle for your address book.
Put simply, it’s today’s AOL. It’s an argument that’s been made before, and it’s becoming more clear as the site grows more ambitious.
What AOL was trying to do was replace the internet — or be the internet — for its users. It provided an online social space with multimedia, forums, e-mail and chat. Once you were in the site, you were subjected to ads, invitations and promotions. Sound familiar?
Of course, there are other, arguably better, ways to do these things online.
Despite AOL’s best efforts (and millions of sign-up CDs) it lost favor with the internet community. It’s still around although it is a specter of its former self. But what hasn’t disappeared is the social network space. Perhaps we can look to AOL as the progenitor of a series of online social hang outs. AOL begets Friendster which begets MySpace which begets Facebook and so on.
My teenage sister-in-law was looking for a summer job on Craigslist. Together, we ran down the list and joked about the listings obviously not tailored for her skillset. When I offered to send her some good ones, she told me not to e-mail her. To my shock, she said the best way to reach her (and her friends) was through her MySpace and Facebook accounts. She typically never checked her email account. I’m not sure she even has a dedicated e-mail account.
This is a peek into the mind of the ardent social network user. It’s also an increasing trend among students and those new to the internet.
Of course, Facebook only works as a communication service when all of your friends, family and colleagues are in the same service. There are benefits to social network messaging; namely, status updates and pictures. However, to an advanced internet user, these benefits can be provided by other services like Twitter and Flickr.
Besides, contacting people professionally by Facebook seems childish. (I’m sure once my sister in law gets online at her first job, she’ll slowly migrate to an e-mail account.) But if Facebook had its way, it would supplant your personal email address, and in so doing, become your online address book on steroids. When you sign up, it scours your e-mail contacts and provides links to and from each and every person you communicate with on a regular basis also on the Facebook network. We buy into the system with the promise that those communications will be enhanced.
Even with that promise, the real value of Facebook for users who maintain an identity outside of its walls lies within its most novel utility — friend updates. At a glance, you’re kept informed of what your friends and colleagues are up to.
Sure, we all know Twitter, but there isn’t as much personal accountability on Twitter as there is on Facebook. Since your Facebook account is tied to your full name instead of a nickname, your lies become transparent. Your best friend, your boss, your sisters — everyone’s watching more closely.
This is why users are far more honest on Facebook, and why adherents use the service in a more personal capacity. It’s a place where people instill trust — more so than on any other web service.
It’s also why Facebook is a breeding ground for gratuitous time-wasting applications — and why developers are clamoring for a way to monetize them. It’s also because Facebook and MySpace are fast becoming the entry point of internet usage among the youth. It’s the after-work or after-school internet, a closer reflection of the real you.
Facebook has a niche on the web, but it has a battle ahead of it to prove to professionals that it deserves a place in their lives. As a Rolodex perhaps? Your personal e-mail address? Whatever it is, Facebook has to make the case it is more than a place to play Scrabble. It needs to become a place to safeguard your personal network and maintain connections.
Perhaps this is why Facebook recently switched-up its interface to segregate applications from your “home” page. Applications are now in tabs, and more difficult to get to.
As for developers looking to Facebook platforms and wondering “why,” they need to think of it as very high potential to get firehose-like traffic from entry-level internet users. Those who are more willing to put down their guard, for once, in a small but growing corner of the internet.
What do you think? What is Facebook’s purpose on the open internet? Put your thoughts in the comments below.