Now that Mark Zuckerberg has been given the rare honor of being named Time Magazine's Person of the Year, perhaps it's time to reflect on how this young man moved from creating a Website to help college students connect to building Facebook into a global social and cultural phenomenon. According to some analysts, Zuckerberg's Facebook is accessed by one-tenth of the human population, a number that's sure to grow. This is a signal achievement in human as well as computing history.
But in addition to its influence on the lives of all those users, Facebook has insinuated itself into virtually every part of life and commerce. A quick look at Google News shows a range of separate stories about Facebook, from its integration with Bing to it use of facial recognition to tag photos. There are stories about the Time magazine story, of course, and about 1,500 other stories on this event.
According to the editors at Time, Zuckerberg and Facebook have fundamentally changed the way people interact with each other and it's changed how we define the concept of community. When you look at all of the things that seem to have been subsumed by Facebook, it's hard to find some part of human activity that is totally Facebook-free.
The natural question, of course, is why Facebook? What is it about this online service that seems to draw people in? Fundamentally, I think that people have a deep desire to feel part of a community of like minded souls. Facebook lets you stay in touch with people that might otherwise drift away either because of distance of time commitments. It provides an asynchronous communications service that doesn't require you be at your computer (or your cell phone or whatever) at the same time as your friend as you must with instant messaging. Instead, you provide updates so people who are your friends can stay up to date on your activities.
This is not the first time such a service has existed and in each case these online services proved remarkably popular, given the technology and infrastructure of the time. When I first signed up for CompuServe around 1981, I noticed something similar. The forums on that service provided a sense of community, and despite the hurdles of 300-baud modems and text-only displays, and the need to own something few people had- a computer-those forums provided their own popular community.