1. Facebook is ostensibly free (although 1-5% of users might buy something at some point – perhaps a game token of which facebook gets a cut, or maybe something from an ad on facebook, and facebook of course gets ad revenue.
2. Facebook has seamless integration with the web, because it’s on the web, and doesn’t try to serve as your web browser.
But the character of Facebook is quite similar to AOL:
Contrary to popular argument, people feel safe on Facebook. Sure, sure they bitch about security and privacy all the time, which is another reason it’s like AOL. But they come to facebook, and stay on facebook, and make facebook their central hub of online activity, primarily because it’s a shield from the wild West of the open web – it’s a safety net. Where else can you actually call someone a stalker for looking at material you posted specifically to be looked at? On the open web, people would think you’re an idiot. In fact, on the web, the whole goal is to get people to look at your stuff – people pay big money toward internet marketing to make that happen, and they collect back revenue through premium/freemium services like members only content, just like Facebook does with its value added services. Facebook is to the web what highschool is to the rest of the world – an insular place that sponsors cliques, and the social dynamics that go with them. On the web, you want hits and interaction. On facebook, you want interaction only with people you know or like – in fact, one of the most popular applications on facebook is the one to see who’s been looking at your profile, except it doesn’t exist – it’s a trojan that replicates to spread itself to your facebook friends. There are a minority who have figured out that Facebook is excellent for marketing, just like the open web, and a smaller minority who have figured out how to use it successfully for that, but the majority of Facebook users are today what AOL users were in 1993.
Facebook, like AOL, reaffirms the myth of ownership – it gives the impression that you have your own space. From a practical standpoint, that’s never true. The only time it’s really 100% yours, is if you lock down your profile from all eyes and connect to no one. But a space that’s not connected to anyone, from a networking standpoint, has a practical value of zero. Even then, your content doesn’t belong to you – what you enter into facebook belongs to facebook – read the agreement you agreed to when you signed up. That’s why once you do start connecting to people, ownership virtually evaporates. What you keep unconnected and wholly private is worthless, and what you share can be used in a variety of ways you’d prefer it wasn’t, and shared to anyone else, whether or not you’d wish it. And there’s really not much you can do about it, because you entered into facebook, making it essentially property of the network. People complain about this endlessly, but it’s the most asinine complaint possible, because it’s a complaint about the nature of networking itself, which they voluntarily engaged in, not a complaint that is applicable specifically to facebook. One of the reasons Myspace had a burst of popularity for a while is that the very notion of “my space” on the web conjured up mistaken images of ownership and safety, ala AOL. But by being primarily, at that time, a crappy web page, like any web page on the open net, with only rudimentary networking features, it went the way AOL did, just in much shorter order. Now it’s popular mainly among the napster-culture music-obsessed, bands, mp3 traders, and those of a tender age whose aspirations to meaning are tied to the latest music group.
Facebook, like AOL, more suits the perpetual network novice – the person who shifts to a magical worldview when it comes to technology – especially networking technology. The difference here is that AOL was never something techs wanted to use, unless they were interested in the alternative sex chat rooms, whereas even the tech types use Facebook some – though they are less likely to camp there all the time. It was an open secret at AOL, by the way, that sex chat accounted for the largest share of its user base and revenue. In fact, it was called affectionately gay-OL by those in the know, because of the vast network of M4M rooms that accounted for the lion’s share of nightly activity, even if yes you could read Time Magazine in AOL, or check stock numbers. This was especially true after 1994, when AOL opened the floodgates of its userbase to the open web. Facebook, currently, doesn’t have that going for it – but it does provide the sort of built in messaging, the buddy list, profile, etc. Network people often say AOL and Facebook are a perfect fit for those who can’t keep track of e-mail addresses, or who just find e-mail address formats and other address formats (like the difference between email@example.com and www.something.com) too confusing and start adding spaces and slashes where they don’t belong, or trying to e-mail web sites and visit other people’s e-mail addresses in a browser. With AOL, and even easier with Facebook, you solve both problems, because you can just search for someone, rather than remembering anything or using a contact list, and you get both their contact method (Facebook messaging) and their web presence (profile page and microblog posts), leading to discussion like “Are you on Facebook? I’m on Facebook. Just look for me on Facebook.” The difference is, of course, with AOL you still often needed to know a screen name, of which a person might have several – with Facebook, you know their real name, which again gives rise to a lot of the bitching about security/privacy controls, and charges of “stalker” hurling around at people who look at your web site and blog (that’s all your profiles and posts are – their web pages and microblog posts on a web site).
So the challenge for networking novices who now use Facebook is to accept networking itself, and what it is, and to understand what they’re doing. A computer is the only appliance people buy first, understand later. Most of us knew how to use a refrigerator when we bought our first one – same with a TV, radio, and usually with a car, more or less. Computers, though, for a lot of people, were buy and learn devices, and so you get a lot of inaccurate perceptions that lead to attitudes based on myth and magic, not the facts of computer science.
What Facebook is:
Facebook is, always was, and remains primarily, a blog. In that sense, it’s no different than twitter or wordpress in principle – it’s just that with wordpress you run your own server space, usually, and with twitter and facebook you don’t. There’s a reason it’s called micro-blogging. The people who love facebook and ridicule twitter are just unaware that they’re using the same type of engine – 140 characters for posts on twitter, 420 characters on facebook (you can use the notes feature to do a full length blog post, instead of microblogging, but even that’s limited). Sure you have a profile, but a profile is the equivalent of a static page on a web site – an About Me or Contact Me page and, frankly, pretty f-ing boring if you’re not posting anything, or at least interacting with other people’s posts. That’s the great thing about Facebook – even if you’re not creative or interesting, you can like or comment on other people’s posts, because Facebook is a blog with networking features. It is, in essence, a form of collaborative blogging. A comment can be worth just as much, if not more, as an original post – if you doubt it, spend some time on Failbook or Lamebook looking at the great gaffs in response to otherwise banal posts about the weather or someone’s kids.
Facebook is, and always will be, a network. Again, there are people who expect and even demand that it be only one kind of network, with only one or two layers (maybe that’s all they can keep up with), of interactions and relationships, but social networks resist this kind of boxing, pidgeonholing, and restriction, because frankly a lot of us can multi-task and can handle a wider array of freedoms and options without becoming paralyzed or confused. It’s smart aleck, but it’s also true. People try to say “I have my friends, and I have my associates, or some such thing, and then get up in arms when someone acts like they don’t neatly fit one of the categories. But compute the number of possible combinations of sharing settings (which are networking settings), and that’s the number of possible types of relationships the system actually supports, assuming no one is creative enough to have their own interpretation of any of those, which also isn’t so. It’s hundreds of possibilities. One of the reasons Facebook created the Lists feature (which actually increases the number of possible relationship types exponentially and potentially infinitely), is to a) satisfy the demand for *more* not fewer possible options for how to interact and relate, but also to help people make (and take responsibility for) their own choices about how to keep them straight in their heads. You might have a list called “teachers” with one set of settings, and another called “office people” with another, and on. While most people might make fairly banal use of the feature, the actual potential quite is inspiring.
There are, of course, people who are not comfortable with blogging, per se, and don’t realize that’s what they and others are doing on facebook. There are those who aren’t comfortable with networks, have never studied networks or don’t understand how they work, etc. Some of each of these want to turn Facebook into what they want it to be. While they will ultimately have the option to use it how they want, for themselves, they will never succeed in a) making it that for everyone else – because it would bankrupt facebook and drive a lot of its user base away – and no, there are no facebook killers coming to replace it – and b) getting everyone to go along with a limited usage of the system’s capabilities. You may want only people you like to look at your stuff – tough – if you put it where it can be seen, we’ll look if we want to – you may want – so hide it, where the value is dimishined, or accept that it’s public, and take what comes with that. You might want only people you like to interact with people you like – tough – we all get the same freedom in our relationships that you have. In the end, Facebook is the new AOL, but it’s also far better than AOL, because there are more, not fewer, options for using it as a network and a publishing (blogging) venue. It isn’t safe, if safe is defined as restricting ideas or people you don’t like. It isn’t owned, if ownership means you can control how people respond to what you write, or if they respond. By participation in Facebook, you accept that it’s a blogging network (which is why all those features are there), and you give up control.
All networks require relaxing or relinquishing control, and yet personal responsibility or diligence for determining (at every moment) what info you let out. This is why corporations are so often self-destructive with their security policies. They try, on the one hand to restrict things that need to be done, hampering their productivity (like preventing their contractors from accessing key project data), for fear that they’ll be corrupted by touching the open web or people they can’t directly control, and yet they do things with the information that no one needs to have, to store, or to give access to, that constantly expose their constituents to harm (like drop it into an unsecure place for their own convenience). In other words, they want safety and ownership, even when it hurts them, and yet they want to get the data out and use it, and collaborate on it, and share it, and do so often without sufficient thought for how networking exposes data, which also hurts them. Networks, inherently require *some* understanding, some real thought as to what you’re using.
It’s real easy to hurt yourself with your car if you just go treating it the way people treat facebook, like it’s supposed to be inherently safe. But you also can’t drive it like there’s no one else on the road – you have to take into account other people’s needs, desires (we sometimes turn left just because we feel like going there), and preferences. Driving is a kind of networking, which is why it’s so volatile – people bring to it some of the same attitudes of control (look at tailgaters) and some of the same mythologies of safety and of ownership (I had the right away, and he was still turning, so I hit him. Nope – actually, you only have the right away when he yields, even if your light is green). Facebook is much more like a highway where you’re sharing your driving with everyone else. You can tint your windows, sure, and tune people out by turning on the stereo. But you still don’t own the road, and you do have to yield, and you don’t get to get upset because someone is checking out your bumpersticker, or sporting one of their own. If you don’t like it, keep your car in the garage.