FACEBOOK - The La Brea Tar Pits of the Internet
(from the 7/09 issue of the CompuNerds Nerdsletter - sign up for it here)
Let's suppose that it's 35,000 years ago and you're a Wooly Mammoth. You're casually lumbering along, as you like to do. It's a hot day, and you're thinking it would be nice to find a pond or something where you can wet yourself down, cool off, maybe take a long refreshing drink. You happen upon just such a spot. You look around, and there's nothing untoward, so you dip a little bit of your foot in, and discover that the water is pleasant. You're up to your ankles, and nothing unusual has occurred, so you wade in further and stand there, up to your knees, soaking and sipping, and generally enjoying yourself.
After a while, feeling very much invigorated, you decide to mosey on, maybe find some marsh grass to nibble upon for a snack. What you didn't notice is that while you were wallowing, distracted, you've been slowly and imperceptibly sinking in to a pit of viscous goo. By now you are well and truly stuck. You may thrash around and try to extricate yourself a bit at first, but eventually, exhausted and resigned, you are completely enveloped by the innocuous-looking Tar Pit.
As with the hapless mammoth, so is it with the innocent Internet user upon encountering Facebook.
Even trying to write about Facebook is difficult, because it is sprawling, addictive and idiosyncratic. It is cohesive and fragmented, frivolous and utilitarian, a boon to society and a scourge to productivity. In case you haven't noticed, I have mixed feelings about Facebook. This article doesn't purport to be a review or an endorsement, but more of an overview, and perhaps an introduction. I'll be that initial elephant foot dipped in the water. Whether you decide to wade in is up to you.
What is Facebook?
What is Facebook? If we ask our old friend, the Wikipedia, it will say this:
"Facebook, formerly TheFacebook, is a free-access social networking website that is operated and privately owned by Facebook, Inc."
That's a start.
Free access: anybody can use it. You don't have to pay for it.
Social Networking Website: A website where people voluntarily share information with friends, family, colleagues, and total strangers, and join themselves into groups and affiliations of all different varieties and sizes (more on groups in a little while). Facebook is all about communication, and members interact with one another in several different ways.
[NOTE: In this article, I will be capitalizing Facebook as a proper noun. In the company's logo, it is spelled all in lowercase.]
When you first sign up with Facebook, you create a profile. The profile contains a whole range of information about you. You can decide how much or how little to share, and you can control who gets to see the information. The settings allow you to control the levels of privacy. Some of it can be for public consumption, or just visible to the people in your network, or just to members of specified groups of family or friends.
Your profile page is broken up into different tabbed sections. You click on the tab to make that section active. The main sections are: Wall, Info, Photos, and Notes.
Info is pretty much what you'd expect. When you begin with Facebook, you join different networks. The main one will probably be based on a geographical area, usually a major city. For example, I belong to the "Los Angeles" network. You can also join networks based on where you went to school, and the company you work for.
The information that you share can be as detailed as you want, from your gender and your hometown to relationship status, political leanings and religious views. There is room to list your favorite music, movies, television shows and books. Once again, all the information is voluntary, and you don't have to share it with anyone you don't want to.
Photos get uploaded to the Photos section. You can "tag" someone in your photo by clicking on the center of a face, and entering the person's name, so that the face is associated with the person. If the person is also a member of Facebook, that picture will be linked to their profile as well.
Notes is a section where you can write or attach text: a poem, essay, opinion, idea; anything.
Wall is the equivalent of a virtual public wall where information about you is available to your friends and group members (more on those in a moment - I promise). Every time you do something in Facebook, you can choose to have it posted to your wall. This is also where you can type a short message about your status.
More exciting terms defined: Status, Friends, Groups & the News Feed!
The Status box is an empty box at the top of the screen labeled "What's on your mind?" You can write anything you want in this box, and it is displayed on your wall and on your profile page. If you wish, you tell everybody that you just walked your dog, or had a really terrific plate of scrambled eggs, or that you're feeling cranky, or will be picking up shirts from the dry cleaners, or that you're upset with a political figure's recent speech, or that you liked a movie, etc. etc. etc. You may attach links to anything on the internet, should you want wish to share something you've found interesting. You can also attach pictures, and upload or link to videos. You are limited only by your imagination and your own sense of propriety.
I should say at this point, that there are rules governing what you can and can't link to or say. They're pretty basic and you agree to them when you create your Facebook account. They can also be found at the "terms" link at the bottom of every page. There has been some controversy in the past with regard to the ownership of intellectual property when you post your original content to the site. They've modified the terms based on the feedback from the community, and my impression is that they're not out to screw you. Nevertheless, if you have a legitimate stake in your intellectual property, as a writer or photographer, etc., it would behoove you to carefully go over the terms before you post anything. This, of course, is true when posting anything, anywhere on the web.
You can easily configure Facebook so that you can post status updates from your cell phone. This allows you to share text, pictures and video from out in the world. No longer must you be tethered to your computer, should you wish to share your thoughts and feelings!
After you've been using the site for a while, your Wall becomes a document mirroring your life and activities, thoughts and interests.
Friends is an important concept on Facebook. Think of a friend, relative, coworker or acquaintance with whom you would like to be connected. You can search for them by their name. If you find a match, you can invite them to be your Friend. If the other person assents, then you each show up among the list of approved friends for the other. You then have access to each other's full profile, and your status updates will appear in each other's news feed (explained very soon).
All of the information in your profile that you have labeled as being acceptable to share with your friends will be available in your friend's version of your profile. Similarly, your friend's profile information is now available to you. You may also become friends with someone if they initiate the process. If they do, you will receive an invitation to become friends with the other person. If you recognize the person and choose to become friends, you can accept the invitation and then you will show up in each other's friends list as well.
You can post messages and comments to your friend's public wall. These Wall-to-Wall messages show up on both of your walls. It's a quick and easy way to communicate with someone, but don't forget that it isn't private. Anyone with access to either wall will be able to see the exchange.
If you want to communicate more privately, there is a message system that will be familiar to anyone who has used web-based email. It works like a simple version of gmail or hotmail, and allows you to send private messages to any of your Facebook friends, or the people in the groups to which you belong. Speaking of groups...
Groups are collections of Facebook members with a common interest. Anyone can create a group for any topic. For any given group, the creator can choose to make membership available to anybody in Facebook, or they can restrict the group to membership By Invitation Only, meaning the group is searchable on Facebook, but members can only join with the permission of the group's creator. Finally, the group can be private. A private group won't show up in the Facebook search engine, and can only be joined by the invitation of the group's creator.
Here are some examples of just a few of the groups to which I belong:
- Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum
- Bone Marrow Transplant Awareness
- When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was A Planet
- Californians Against Public Education Funding Cuts
- Lost Timeloop Theory Fan Club
Another main Facebook feature is called the News Feed. The News Feed is a page that posts updated status messages, pictures, and links from the friends in your friends list. It's like having a stock market ticker of your friends' lives.
Fun & Games
Besides updating your own status and keeping tabs on the status of your various friends, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of different activities to occupy your time on Facebook.
Finding your way around on Facebook takes a little getting used to. The paths from one area to another, and the methods, for example, for sharing a link from your status box, or your wall, or your news feed are slightly different. If you need help, you can always post a question to your Facebook friends on your wall, and chances are you will quickly be inundated in advice. Facebook has a pretty good help system built in, and you can access it from the link at the bottom of most pages. There is also a search box in the upper right corner of each page. This is a good place to go if you are looking for a person, group, or application.
Although Facebook is free, you are continually exposed to advertising, mostly in a column down the right side of the web page.
Of course there is a chat feature. In the lower-right hand corner of the window, you can find a list of your friends who are currently online. By clicking on a name, you can start a text chat with someone.
There are thousands of quizzes available on Facebook, on every conceivable subject. If you want to discover which Disney Princess you most resemble, or which sandwich, Transformer, chemical element, Star Wars character, etc., there is a quiz for you. You can share your quiz results and compare them to your other friends who have taken the same quiz. The tools are available to make your own quizzes to publish and share, should you so desire.
One of the more bewildering Facebook applications lets you give and receive virtual "gifts" to your Facebook friends. The gifts come in thousands of varieties. You can choose birthday cakes, plants, buttons with slogans, furniture, motorcycles...anything you can imagine can be made into a gift and then shared. You can choose from existing gifts or create your own.
Another strange thing to do is to poke a friend. When you "poke" somebody, they receive a message that they've been poked by you, and they may opt to poke back. Then you will receive a message that you've been poked, and you can poke that person back again. It reminds me of two siblings in the back of a station wagon on a long trip: "If you kids keep poking each other, I'm going to turn this internet right around!" One friend came up with an explanation for this behavior that almost makes sense. Poking is just a way to let the other person know that you were thinking about them, which is a nice sentiment, I suppose. Poking on Facebook is less likely to cause restraining orders than in real life.
There are many many free applications available. Some are useful, some frivolous. You can keep track of events and birthdays with calendar programs that send you reminders of your friend's birthdays. You can maintain a list of the books you read, and share reviews with other members using applications like WeRead and Visual Bookshelf. Some of the applications are variations on simple games. They derive their income by getting you to play and exposing you to advertising. Some claim to be for a good cause, like saving the rain-forest, and others are simply for fun. In games like Lil' Green Patch, and Lil' Blue Cove, you collect and maintain plants, or fish, and send them to your Facebook friends.
There are travel games where you kidnap another player to a destination of your choosing, and they must answer a travel-related question to escape. You can trade salvos with a variety of water pistols or participate in an online pillow fight.
There are games where you unscramble words or manipulate shapes for points.
All of these games combine a participatory element, so that you can play with or against other Facebook friends.
The Big Wrap-Up
Facebook is so successful because of the social element: the ability to communicate with your social network. The site is well-known for reuniting people who haven't spoken in decades. It is an amazing tool for locating school-mates from the third grade, ex-girl and boyfriends, and faces from the past.
The idea of this seething community of people that you know, spread across the globe, busily pursuing their daily activities, living, loving, amusing themselves and each other, is what makes Facebook so addictive.
Before I wrap this discussion up, I would like to make mention of the potential business uses for Facebook. People and companies can speak directly with their clients, and maintain open lines of communication. Organizations can quickly and easily communicate among their employees through the use of groups as well. It gives a business new and immediate ways to connect to their clients.
Facebook doesn't really do any one new thing that can't be found elsewhere on the web. It is a success story because of the unique way in which it combines all the different elements. With over 200 million users, it has achieved a critical mass that allows it to leverage the affects of social networking. The site is still in its infancy, and exactly where it will go, how it will grow, and what new ideas and opportunities it will offer is open to speculation. It should be an interesting ride.
Meanwhile, come on in, the water's fine. Don't worry too much about sinking in the tar, you'll be entertained all the way down.