Arnold: "Do you think Facebook will try to get closer to 100 percent coverage by reaching out to people my age? Or will they wait for us to die off?"
Young Dave: "Wait for you to die off."
In 1994, I attempted to start a real-estate related site on the World Wide Web. There were so few grown-ups with access to a web browser at that time that one of the visitors to my site commented, "Congratulations! You've set up your lemonade stand on the moon. Now you just have to wait for the astronauts to get there."
I remember writing articles for real estate trade publications in late 1994 and early 1995. It was eerie to think that if pundits were correct, then most of the companies in my audience knew nothing about the Web and yet these same companies would have their own web sites within a few years.
I have a similar hunch about Facebook. Young Dave has an entrepreneurial idea for an application on Facebook (earlier this year, the site opened to outside developers), and his father made him talk to me about it. No doubt I learned more from our conversation than Young Dave did from me.
Despite Young Dave's assessment, I think it is possible that Facebook will make the leap from its predominantly young demographic to mainstream, grown-up usage. If it does so, the transition will happen soon and will not take long.
Facebook is starting to look like a cross between the Web and America Online, circa 1994. Both subsequently became extremely popular. However, AOL was unable to sustain its market position.
My first reaction to AOL was, "I am too old and too married to use this service." It seemed as though every chat room, regardless of topic area, was filled with flirts.
For now, Facebook, too, is primarily a flirt zone for young people. But it might turn into something more than that.
Wild Jungles vs. Walled Gardens
For at least 15 years, there has been a tension between a desire for an open, anonymous online experience and a desire for a controlled, less chaotic experience. Most people want a mixture of both.
The Wild Jungle of the Internet gives everyone access, with plenty of opportunity for anonymity. The downside of the openness and anonymity is that it permits phenomena like email spam, which allow a tiny minority of crass individuals to impose cost and annoyance on others.
A Walled Garden can exercise control over spam or other forms of abuse. However, users will not enjoy unrestricted ability to communicate within the Walled Garden. Moreover, to the extent that you want to reach people outside of the Walled Garden, its usefulness is truncated.
It is possible to have the worst of both worlds. AOL and MySpace, for example, were supposed to be Walled Gardens. However, I have heard that both services at some point experienced difficulties with phony accounts and adults hitting on teenagers. (I cannot say whether these problems are present currently.)
Facebook started by creating a Walled Garden that includes most Americans recently enrolled in college and that excludes almost everyone else. They have gradually opened up the Garden, so that anyone may now join. However, thus far, Facebook seems to have avoided some of the problems of unsuccessful Walled Gardens, such as widespread ghost members or phony members.
If Facebook--or any other social network--can attract a desirable community while keeping out the crass minority, then it will have achieved an important objective for a Walled Garden. On the other hand, if as Facebook opens up to broader membership all of the problems of the Wild Jungle assert themselves, then the project will probably stall out and go into a nosedive.
Beyond the Binary
Early during the social software craze, David Weinberger zeroed in on one of the challenges with formal attempts to create networks of friends.
I have no problem saying, yes, I am Halley's friend. But there are lots and lots of people who might ask me to be their friend for which the situation is much dicier. There are people who are acquaintances, or relatives, or former college housemates I've been trying to avoid for years. There are people for whom I'll press the Accept button not because they're friends exactly but because they're not enough not-friends that I want to reject them, or because I want to impress them, or because I want to kiss their butt in public, etc. Friendster asks me to be binary about one of the least binary relationships around.
Facebook has made modest attempts to get away from the binary relationship. For example, it allows you to designate some parts of your profile as visible only to particular members.
In order to work for adults, Facebook would have to allow much more refined classification. For example, Facebook gives its users news updates from their friends. In school, this may work just fine. A student may be quite interested in the social ups and downs of her chums, and she may have plenty of time to scroll through all the little updates. As an adult, I have less time and more particular interests.
Concerning my friends, I cannot make a binary statement that says either "Yes, I am interested in any news that Facebook might have about you," or "No I have no interest in any update from you." Instead, I would want to classify friends in different ways.
For example, I do not want to follow the social activities of my former students, but I would like to hear about a new job or a new school that they are attending. With some out-of-town friends, I might want to get together serendipitously if we are going to be in the same city, so I would like to get updates of their travel plans. With other friends, I do not care.
With some friends, I would like to get ideas for things to try. But I want to differentiate. I might like a friend's book recommendations, but I might not want her new recipes.
David Weinberger's thesis is that these different notions of friendship are necessarily difficult to specify as rules, so that neither Facebook not any other social networking service is going to be able to offer a satisfying scheme. No doubt he is correct in the sense that no mechanism is going to be perfect, but I think that some better approaches may emerge on Facebook as people experiment with the site's group-formation and application-development features.
As students get older, they will find that their tolerance for a high noise-to-signal ratio declines, even as their criteria for distinguishing signal from noise become more varied. If Facebook does not evolve to meet these changing characteristics of its user base, it will probably join the long roster of social networking sites that captured the imagination of a group for a few years, but then faded.
One of the most interesting potential uses of the Internet is group formation. For example, I am trying to form a group that I call Peripatetics.
The challenge with forming a group in the Wild Jungle is that you do not know how to reach the people who might be interested in joining the group. You do not want to spam the whole world. But you want to get the word out.
With Facebook, you can start a group by using your friends as a base. If your social network is rich enough, this may get the word out to many potential joiners. However, at some point, I would think that Facebook might start to weigh down its users with too many invitations to try too many things. Again, maintaining a strong signal-to-noise ratio will be a challenge.
I think that the potential value for effective group formation is quite high. I have visions of a "Tocquevillian society on steroids." But if Facebook is going to be the vehicle for making that happen, it has to get over the generation gap.