Our Latest Discovery

Aug 27 2007   12:26PM GMT

Facebook: A social network evolves into a social utility

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

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.

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  • Atrujillo
    For me, social networking sites come down to three players: Myspace, Facebook and Friendster, with the last, from my perspective, getting forced off the hill. Also gaining attention is YouTube's profile functionality, which seems to be the next step in e-narcissism - why make everyone read about you when you can literally show yourself? That's not to say that those are the only soc nets out there. From the "velvet-roped" service Pownce to any number of specialty soc nets that range from shopping to you name it, there is something for everyone. At any rate, while I'm still new to Facebook, I see a few advantages over what I view to be its main rival, Myspace: Facebook seems to have less SPAM than Myspace, which makes managing my inbox sooo much easier. This may be analogous to the amount of viruses being produced for Internet Explorer versus, say, Safari. In other words, it may be a let's-exploit-users-of-the-big-guys sort of thing, but who knows. Though the ability to customize Myspace is neat . . . so what? Do I really need the latest Fall Out Boy tune playing with video slideshows of my last night out looping and scenes from Star Wars serving as my background? The simple design and useful functionalities of Facebook are just more pleasant. Lastly, who owns Facebook? It isn't the company responsible for blatantly skewed political news coverage, that's for sure.
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  • Hannah
    I signed up for facebook first because of peer pressure. It came out during my junior year of college, and my roommates were addicted. I have to say, it's a lot more fun in college then it is afterwards. The party invite tool is very useful, and they didn't have the creepy RSS feed-type landing page. You could stalk your crush without being too stalker-ish. Now, Facebook's slogan should pretty much be, "Stalking Made Easy!" Unfortuantely, Facebook is hard to get away from. If you cancel, all the pictures you've uploaded are gone, and your friends see your name blacked out. So then there's drama about you defriending people or blocking them, because (shocker) who would EVER want to leave facebook! Then everyone begs you to return because they need some extra pages to stalk during their freetime. Myspace, I added, because before Facebook was all jazzy like it is today, it was pretty blase. Myspace gives you almost complete control over your page, and I am a dork and want to put songs (yes, Adam) and slideshows and have my page be a little Web-extension of myself. And yes, both tools are actually GREAT tools for networking, keeping tabs on ex boyfriends or girlfriends, and those childhood friends you lost touch with-and usually would never talk to again. But today, there's a new social networking tool that trumps both Facebook and Myspace (and I'm not talking about LinkedIn). Enter 'aSmallWorld' - entirely invite-only. No regular people, doesn't matter if you belong to the same school as someone else, you have to be invited. Check out this BusinessWeek article to see what I mean.
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  • darrinclement
    Will Facebook start allowing users to draw their own neighborhood boundaries and thus define their own social geography?
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  • Alex
    Darrin, I think the neighborhoods application is a major step in that direction. Zuckerman loves to talk about "social graphs." I think we'll be seeing much more in the way of visual representations of our networks in the future. I also think there is likely to be quite a bit more, highly targeted advertising based upon expressed interests in media or events, based upon that locality. But that's just one editor's opinion!
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  • Zin1988
    for a start i registered in the facebook to play there games. i know a lot of friends who gets addicted on the application of face so i said okay i wil try it too. weeks later i am on the same boat with them! Fantastic isnt it?
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