Monday, September 24th, 2007...12:27 am
The other day I signed on to Facebook and saw that my older sister (she is 28) had created an account. I was eager to get her take on the social utility because I equate her views as being representative of an average internet user. Too often people within digital media get swept up in the Techcrunch hype. People like my sister remind me that MySpace dwarfs Twitter by a multiple that’s exponentially higher than even Tom Brady’s passing rating this season.
After a few days of feeling out the features and getting her bearings (why would you poke somebody?) she is now a believer. She even bragged to me the other day about how many friends she has on Facebook!
This got me thinking some more about Facebook. I do this a lot. Just ask my younger sister. I’ve interrogated her and her friends for years their obsession and addiction to Facebook. She was a Freshman in college when Facebook hit the scene. I had my own college basketball website at the time so she was quick to show me how this new website worked. I watched from a far as it spread from college to college. In the fall of 2005 I was part of a team at CSTV that was close to working out a deal to become only the second sponsored group ever on Facebook (after Apple). I also signed up for an account by dusting off my college e-mail address but felt like an outsider from the start. Afterall, I left the friendly confines of Ann Arbor in 2003 (1 year BF – Before Facebook). Finally, as Facebook opened it service I’ve seen my friends, colleagues and business associates pop up with profiles.
Miraculously, everybody seems to love Facebook. College students are as engaged as ever. Those who were introduced to Facebook in college may have graduated but their love and use of Facebook remains. The TechCrunch minions never have a negative thing to say. Developers have flocked to the open API. I recently attended a Facebook Hackathon in NYC and the feeling in the room was unanimously bullish that Facebook was a perfect platform to build upon. Web 2.0 businesses see their Facebook strategy as the key to growth and success. A ten billion dollar valuation has been brandied about and many believe that Facebook’s successful and lucrative exit will be via an IPO.
I don’t see it. I don’t get the fascination. Might Facebook be overrated and overvalued? I’ll try to explain myself. But first I do want to put a disclaimer on my argument. As I mentioned, I had already graduated college when Facebook popped up. I didn’t have the opportunity to fall in love with the service like most college kids. Perhaps it’s like learning a second language. No matter how good you get you still wonder if you understand and appreciate the language as well as a native speaker. I’m still relatively young in the professional world and have been privileged enough to be square in the middle of the Napster/AIM/Blogs/Text Message/RSS/Friendster-MySpace-Social Networking scene. I’m confident and knowledgeable when discussing any of these mediums or applications from my natural experiences using them. I’ve become great at rolling my eyes and snickering at media executives who struggle to comprehend the digital world. The same can’t be said for Facebook. For example, I was explaining the new Sportsvite Facebook Application to my sister and her friend. They’re not into these applications to begin with (other than the “cool ones” like graffiti) but they flat out laughed at me when I said the phrase “facebook app”. They told me that sounded weird and dorky and nobody calls them “apps”. This I didn’t know. By the way, I’m still not sure if it is cute or sketchy to poke somebody? G-d forbid I get labeled a “stalker”!
Those who used Facebook in college use it as a way to keep track of their social life. It’s like Outlook for your friends. You can keep tabs on what the people around you are doing. Since your Facebook scene mirrors your college life it’s actually a pretty useful way to follow the scene on campus. It’s not about self-expression like MySpace. The majority of college students I know don’t fill out their profile details and until recently there was very little ability to customize a profile. I always thought that Facebook would be a great place to rate professors, trade textbooks, and create a campus marketplace. But that idea teeters too close to the concept of work and Facebook is fun. Kids will click on over to eBay or Craigslist if they have to take care of errands. You go on Facebook to see when, where and with whom you friends are hanging out. It’s perfect if you have a large group of friends and are really interested in how they are spending their time. Hence, it’s magical in the college environment (also would be remiss not to include high school here).
My big sister signed up for Facebook after returning from a group trip to Israel. She joined because everybody on her trip was on it. It was a convenient way for her to stay in touch. It doesn’t hurt that she can also dig up info on old acquaintances from high school and college and maybe even find a few cute gentlemen in her scene. In many ways this scenario is very similar to college. Add to that the novelty of Facebook and it makes sense why she digs it.
Adults (defined here as people who didn’t use Facebook in college) seem to missing the point. They want Facebook to be everything and do everything and think it’s the answer for everything. Yet, most adults are doing the same pointless things on Facebook that they did on Friendster and MySpace. They try to get as many friends as possible and try to fill out their profile as much as possible. It doesn’t seem like Facebook allows adults to better integrate their digital profiles with their real life. In fact, most adults seem to be trying to copy the college crowd yet they don’t even use the site to organize their social life (the reason it is so popular with college kids). This makes sense as adults are often married or in serious relationships and are also more career focused and thus their social life takes somewhat of a back seat. Facebook hasn’t proven to be especially successful at making business connections (LinkedIn), meeting new people (your favorite dating site), as a great form of self expression (MySpace or personal blog), catalyst for debates (message boards) or enabling real life opportunities (MeetUp, Job Site). So I’m having a hard time understanding how it is that much better and sustaining than Friendster, MySpace or any other social network. I hope it’s more than just cleaner CSS code!
Maybe Facebook is the social network where the masses will congregate and settle. Maybe the open API makes it a platform and an aggregator of people’s online data. But can’t Facebook just as easily be the hot place to park your digital profile and grab your time and attention for a quick minute? It’s amazing how MySpace’s flash of popularity lasted less than a year. I haven’t received one non-spam/porn MySpace request in the last four months. Furthermore, I’m now receiving Facebook friend invites from the same people who sent me Friendster friend invites three years ago and MySpace invites last year. Who knows what the cool site will be next year?
So there you have it. Facebook is a perfect platform to help high school and college kids figure out their social lives in college and continues into those fun, social years immediately after college. In terms of being a platform that will rule the web and should be worth billions? Well, I guess you can call me old and out of touch and tell me that when it comes to the digital world I just don’t “get it”.