Can it survive the crossover into mass culture?
Last Updated September 24, 2007
In the past year, Facebook has evolved from being an essential element of a student's life to becoming a mainstay of mainstream culture and the most popular website in Canada. No longer limited to academic environments, can Facebook survive the crossover into mass culture and the pressures of commercialization?
In other words, is it still cool to use when your mom finds you on Facebook?
Understanding Facebook's success is helpful toward recognizing not only how the internet is evolving, but also how we humans are evolving, and how the use of social-media and networking sites like Facebook is changing society in general.
To some extent, we've taken for granted the Facebook phenomenon, the rapid time within which so many of our friends and families have signed up to this social networking site. Those who have been around, whether on Facebook or on similar social-media platforms, may be cynical as to what makes Facebook so engaging and dominant — however, nobody can ignore the critical mass of people, especially in Canada, who have started using the site as their primary means of communicating online.
The internet's phone book
Already, many people are using Facebook more often than e-mail as a primary means of communicating with friends and contacts online. With Facebook playing the role of a visual phone book, some people who have resisted signing up find that it can be the easiest — and at times only — means of reaching people.
Certainly, the address-book role that Facebook plays speaks to the fact that few internet users think of their electronic address book as something of value that requires constant updating and maintenance. Facebook automates such maintenance, as friends update their own information relating to new jobs, schools, or cities they may have moved to. And an important social layer that includes information as to how they're feeling, what they're doing this weekend, or what music they may be listening to adds an intimate dynamic that an ordinary address book cannot achieve.
There is an initial euphoria that comes with being connected with almost everyone you've ever known. Whether it be old contacts from elementary school, friends from summer jobs long gone, or distant cousins who you'd otherwise never be in touch with, Facebook makes explicit social ties that most of us have successfully ignored — usually for good reason.
Yet even though the euphoria gives way to fatigue, distrust and even fear, hardly anyone is able to walk away, give up Facebook cold turkey, and find a new internet obsession to waste time with. Rather, there is a utility that speaks to the potential of Facebook to keep even the most jaded users coming back day after day.
The 'social operating system'
An integral ingredient to this ongoing success and staying power lies in Facebook's decision to open up its social networking platform to developers (via an "application programming interface," or API) in a way that is free to use and relatively flexible.
While on the one hand this initially triggered a rise in superficial and annoying applications, such as turning friends into "vampires" or "zombies," over time a number of genuinely useful and creative ones have emerged that continue to add value to what is an incredibly popular platform. Successful applications that are able to leverage the viral nature of the Facebook platform are able to ride on the coattails of the site's popularity, and in so doing create a mutually beneficial relationship that continues to expand the relevance and functionality of the platform as a whole.
This successful culture of collaboration has encouraged a number of analysts and investors to describe Facebook as an emerging "social operating system" that in the near future will compete directly with Microsoft as the primary platform for all of a users' computational and information needs. Facebook applications already exist that provide office functionality and financial and accounting capability, in addition to the usual assortment of games and communication tools.
An intelligent network appliance with dedicated internet access could offer a much cheaper alternative to a complicated Microsoft Windows home computer, and it would allow people to avoid all the software and security costs that are associated with owning a PC. Alternatively, Facebook could be accessed by the next generation of gaming consoles — removing any need for a separate computer in the home, given that gaming and networking tend to be how most young people spend their time online.
Competition for Google?
While this vision of Facebook as a competitor to Microsoft Windows may be difficult for some to imagine, a more immediate giant to tackle would be the mighty Google and its dominant search engine.
As a "social search engine," Facebook already makes it easier to find people than Google does — in part due to the visual nature of searching for specific people, but also due to the social dynamic of Facebook. On the social networking site, finding an individual is often as easy as seeing who their friends are, as well as what pictures they've been "tagged" in.
The rapid growth of Facebook is comparable to the emergence of Google from a student project at Stanford to becoming the dominant search engine and largest media company in the world. Even though the utility of a search engine is perhaps more evident than that of a social-media platform, the power of collaboration and the strength of social networking are such that the potential of Facebook should not be underestimated.
If, as Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message," then perhaps we Canadians are being changed by simply using the site as frequently and intensely as we have been in recent months. While the shine and coolness of it all may be fading, the fact that so many people have signed up and continue to use the site speaks to a shift in how we relate to each other and how we organize ourselves online.
Facebook is a disruptive force, in that it changes our ability to use and understand the internet in interactive ways that only a small minority have used before now.
Perhaps with this type of communications power now in the hands of so many regular people, some of the original promises of democracy and diversity that emerged with the internet will come true.
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