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.
Facebook: The Ultimate Expression of the Old BBS Forum
A little later, when Byte Magazine kicked off BIX, users were given a more feature-rich conferencing system. But as was the case with CompuServe, users were fighting that same uphill battle of needing to own a computer and having a very slow connection (although by then modem speeds were up to 1200 baud).
Other services existed at the time. There was the Source as well as thousands of online bulletin board systems. Communities large and small grew up around each of them. Facebook, however, became the ultimate development of the original idea of a simple social forum or conferencing system, moving the concept light years beyond one of the old BBSes.
First, it operates in a broadband environment; second, it’s supported by virtually every computing platform available, from PCs and Macs to iPhones and BlackBerrys. It’s also different in that you got to choose your friends. While anyone on Facebook can request to be considered a friend, you have the ability to accept their offer or ignore them. This means that you can avoid some of the most disagreeable parts of the old forums and conferences-the mindless flame war.
During my time running a BBS and being a moderator on BIX, I found that I was frequently dismayed by the number of people who simply stopped using the service because two or three users went after each other in ways that could only be described as impolite and in some cases vicious. Now, with Facebook, you can just defriend someone who persists in such activity.
But Facebook gives other reasons for belonging. They have online role playing games (although those of us who own real farms generally find the attraction of “Farmville” to be a mystery) and online events. You can show photos, which was part of Facebook’s original design and you can post videos. To add to the sense of community, you can create groups for people of like interest (I started one for N-scale model railroaders) and you can wrap all of this in a friendly, easy to use used environment. The nicest thing about Facebook is that you don’t need to be a Web development expert to use it.
And perhaps that’s the key to Facebook’s success. There’s no longer a high bar to admission-all you need is a cell phone. There’s no massive learning curve as there was for the earlier conferencing systems and bulletin boards. You just go there and you use it. That alone has a lot to say about how Zuckerberg earned his honor and Facebook its success.