What can I say about Facebook that hasn’t been said? Newsweek has placed Mort Zuckerberg, the founder of the social networking giant on its cover. And the press has been hyperventilating about Facebook for months.
So what is Facebook? It’s a simple idea, done well: move the “facebooks” of incoming college undergraduates online, with headshots and interests constituting a basic profile, and then create the tools for nodes on the network to interact and browse each other’s profiles.
It’s also my “latest discovery,” as I joined earlier this spring, egged on by a neighbor. Back when I went to college, we had such a thing, printed on “paper,” bound and distributed to the freshman class (and just as quickly appropriated by upperclassmen frequently interested in more than discovering who else was into rock climbing or Pearl Jam). Facebook was, at its inception, a social network for college students, with access limited to only students in the same institution. Now, Facebook has laid claim to being a “social utility,” bidding to become the platform or framework we use to organize our online lives.
Audacious, perhaps, but not unprecedented. Friendster had the early start in filling that role but never recovered from an inability of its original technical architecture to scale to massive traffic demands or challenges from MySpace and other networks.
To be fair, over the past spring and summer, the social networking phenomenon has continued to explode in popularity and innovation, but Facebook has grown much faster and pulled in the digerati like no other.
Why? There’s no single reason. While the decision to open the formerly closed network to the Internet at large is an obvious place to begin, instead of limiting membership to isolated pools of collegians, other factors are in play. Making APIs available to developers resulted in a tsunami of applications that help to further interconnect nodes within each social network has attracted enormous amounts of energy (and, increasingly) venture capital to the platform.
Choosing to keep a clean, easily navigated interface has mattered as well. While MySpace is still the biggest social network — and by most measurements, the most popular site on the Internet, the contrast between the two services couldn’t be much larger, aesthetically, as Facebook (by comparison) radically limits the visual control a user has over a profile. It doesn’t hurt that all of the young college graduates enter the workforce with profiles, either.
If you need a sense of how bound into the tech community Facebook has become, consider how Silicon Valley reacted to a recent Facebook outage.
There’s plenty of evidence too that spending time on Facebook has also evolved into a significant productivity drain (though some disagree) and security risk. (If you’re wondering which companies lead in embracing Facebook, along with the most risk, just read Elisa’s post). The trouble is that sysadmins with itchy trigger fingers may not be able to quickly shut off the flow of bandwidth by firewalling Facebook. Unlike other more informal networks, many professionals have been using to “friend” their coworkers, clients and collaborators, along with former college roommates and dorm buddies. While LinkedIn has long been the social network of choice for many professionals, Facebook has begun eating into that market. In the online social media world, the gaps between online and offline networks are continuing to close, along with whatever space remained between work and personal lives.
Netizens my age (proud members of the “XY generation” that bridges the gap between Gen X (children of the 80s) and Gen Y (folks who don’t remember life before CDs and email or who said “trust but verify“) and older may find some elements of Facebook surprising, though perhaps not more so than MySpace. Older users are joining, however, and finding a place. While privacy options for profiles exist, unlike MySpace, there’s significant potential for embarrassment and even calamity for college or career prospects for those who aren’t wary about posting photos or blog entries that don’t put them in a good light, to put it mildly. PR professionals and marketers would do well to consider the advice of social media gurus. And, as neighborhood applications crop up, there are also alarming security concerns regarding personal safety and property, given that clever criminals can posit where and when individuals are away.
While much of the value of joining these networks can be found in keeping touch with friends and alumni — and making new ones from within that social network — the amount of information that many people are adding to their profiles has also been identified as a valid phishing risk, with significant potential for social engineering hacks that allow access to corporate networks.
What to do? As is the case with the rest of the Web-based applications that have made their way into enterprise and personal desktops alike (users keep outwitting IT when installing consumer apps, apparently), the key is likely to be adaptive security policies that both recognize the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and personal life while respecting both the bandwidth limitations high usage may inflict upon a network and the need to limit the leak or theft of potentially damaging proprietary or personal data. No one is suggesting that developing, implementing or enforcing such a policy is easy, but the consequences of failing to try may extend well beyond a public relations disaster to the organization or individual who doesn’t consider Facebook to be a risk.
There are also no shortages of critics who view the closed nature of Facebook with some distaste — “yet another profile to populate” is a new form of fatigue in the digital age. Personal data portability may become a online movement. It’s certainly been the inspiration for a business plan or two. The founder of LiveJournal, for instance, has published a mini-manifesto for portable, open social networking, according to Mashable. (It may help that Google appears to be backing him). Other observers have noted that Facebook hasn’t been proven to be a rewarding platform for advertisers yet either, though the model is still evolving, as described in this excellent article from Business.com, the Facebook Economy.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy watching classmates and friends pop up on Facebook; lest you wonder, you can find me there as well. Be warned: I’m sticking with adding friends, coworkers and neighbors, lest I develop social networking fatigue myself.