TCS Daily


The Facebook Generation Gap

By Arnold Kling - August 10, 2007 12:00 AM

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.

Group Formation

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.

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6 Comments

Age and maturity do have a lot to do with this
I met my husband online during the glory days of Prodigy, and our music-related bulletin board had a nice bunch of folks of similar age and interest who gathered all the time to discuss the music and many other things. We all ended up meeting each other at various concerts and fan gatherings around the country and it made the online experience that much more interesting. It was exhilarating, sometimes extremely annoying, and a lot of fun. I expended countless hours on the board and in email...and ended up happily married and moving across the country because of it.

I'm more than 12 years older now, and have found gatherings only slightly similar on a few blogs, but none nearly as compelling. Further, I find that, the older I get, the less I care about anyone else's doings and the more I care about my own privacy. I also do not have the time to spend (waste) on online chat groups and in email.

I just don't see folks past their 20s, certainly not folks with busy family and work lives, being drawn to such communities with the same vigor as kids and singles in their social years. It's a good outlet for the lonely, the single/divorced/widowed, and the socially shy, and might be great for seniors. For people between 30 and 60, I don't really see it. And while a busy online life may be good for singles, it can be deadly for a relationship or a marriage. My husband visits car sites, I spend time in the blogosphere, and both of us assiduously avoid social/flirting sites.

Furthermore, "My Space" sounds narcissistic, and "Facebook" sounds juvenile. IMHO.

Facebook is already old, but needs to grow up
What you see at Facebook is already happening. It's a site built for college kids, but over half of their 31,000,000 users are over the age of 25. That was the case with MySpace too, but the high users are definitely the younger set.

it's just that us old fogies (and I'm 33) have no use for the site, and signed up because we were supposed to. if they want Facebook to have a business purpose, they have a lot of growing up to do.

Witness the recent kerfuffle over a well-known recruiter, Harry Joiner, getting banned for uploading his address book. He had 4600 contacts. A low-level customer service rep banned him, for life.

He was e-mailing his own contacts, because Scoble wrote a post saying he should, and that was a no-no. It made sense when it was closed, but now? Why ban successful networkers?

Jim Durbin
www.brandstorming.com

Life needs editors
Coding rules into software is unlikely to solve the problem of separating the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps what would work better is to broaden the role of editors.

Some of my fondest time is that spent with a good magazine or newspaper. This is due largely to the editor's work in filtering the subjects of discussion, and in weeding out poor writers. This role of "editing" may have application in group interactions as well. An editor for the group would be apprised of nearly everything, and he or she would package and publish information to the group (or to the individual members) in sophisticated ways. This would be challenging duty, and those who are talented in performing these tasks would thrive, as would members of a well edited group.




I think Facebook is open to everyone. Yes, it was originally meant for college students, but now anyone uses it. I am a college student. There are more people I have seen who are in college, and are on facebook all of the time. I do not know one student who does not have a facebook. Every time I am by computers, there is at least one person signed in. Not only do students have them, but some of their parents do as well.
There is another positive to facebook. I personally have experienced running into people I have not seen since grade school (as I mentioned before, I am in college now). I enjoy my facebook more than I enjoyed myspace, or blnk, or any other social network. A big reason is because of the privacy options offered to users. My profile is set to complete privacy against people who are not my friends. Some links on my profile are set for keeping certain friends out and letting others in. I appreciate how the options are offered. However, the negative is that there are some ways to sneak around the privacy of others. I will not name any.
The one negative I see with facebook, which is a big negative, is how much distraction it becomes for some people. Students are a big problem from what I have seen. It has become such a big distraction for them, that teachers even put rules about facebook on their syllabus: “NO FACEBOOK!” I really don’t see any problems with facebook , besides the distraction one for students. I don’t know it if really distracts older adults while they are working. The facebook population has grown so large in such a short amount of time, and is continuously growing. I do not think it will be long before nearly everyone is using it.

I think Facebook is open to everyone. Yes, it was originally meant for college students, but now anyone uses it. I am a college student. There are more people I have seen who are in college, and are on facebook all of the time. I do not know one student who does not have a facebook. Every time I am by computers, there is at least one person signed in. Not only do students have them, but some of their parents do as well.
There is another positive to facebook. I personally have experienced running into people I have not seen since grade school (as I mentioned before, I am in college now). I enjoy my facebook more than I enjoyed myspace, or blnk, or any other social network. A big reason is because of the privacy options offered to users. My profile is set to complete privacy against people who are not my friends. Some links on my profile are set for keeping certain friends out and letting others in. I appreciate how the options are offered. However, the negative is that there are some ways to sneak around the privacy of others. I will not name any.
The one negative I see with facebook, which is a big negative, is how much distraction it becomes for some people. Students are a big problem from what I have seen. It has become such a big distraction for them, that teachers even put rules about facebook on their syllabus: “NO FACEBOOK!” I really don’t see any problems with facebook , besides the distraction one for students. I don’t know it if really distracts older adults while they are working. The facebook population has grown so large in such a short amount of time, and is continuously growing. I do not think it will be long before nearly everyone is using it.

I think Facebook is open to everyone. Yes, it was originally meant for college students, but now anyone uses it. I am a college student. There are more people I have seen who are in college, and are on facebook all of the time. I do not know one student who does not have a facebook. Every time I am by computers, there is at least one person signed in. Not only do students have them, but some of their parents do as well.
There is another positive to facebook. I personally have experienced running into people I have not seen since grade school (as I mentioned before, I am in college now). I enjoy my facebook more than I enjoyed myspace, or blnk, or any other social network. A big reason is because of the privacy options offered to users. My profile is set to complete privacy against people who are not my friends. Some links on my profile are set for keeping certain friends out and letting others in. I appreciate how the options are offered. However, the negative is that there are some ways to sneak around the privacy of others. I will not name any.
The one negative I see with facebook, which is a big negative, is how much distraction it becomes for some people. Students are a big problem from what I have seen. It has become such a big distraction for them, that teachers even put rules about facebook on their syllabus: “NO FACEBOOK!” I really don’t see any problems with facebook , besides the distraction one for students. I don’t know it if really distracts older adults while they are working. The facebook population has grown so large in such a short amount of time, and is continuously growing. I do not think it will be long before nearly everyone is using it.

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