In 2004, a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg uploaded his university’s student directory to the Web. He then invited fellow undergrads to use the database to catalog their campus friendships. The idea, Zuckerberg explained, was to chart relationships – to map, as he put it, everyone’s “social graph.”
The site was an instant hit: Within two weeks, thefacebook.com (as it was then called) had more than 4,000 members. Before the semester was out, the phenomenon began spreading to other universities. Then, in 2006, Zuckerberg opened the floodgates by allowing anyone to sign up – not just students. Facebook.com now has 35-million users, and ranks as Canada’s most popular Web address.
Even for those serious-minded readers who don’t typically waste their time following the latest Net trends, “the Facebook effect” (as Newsweek dubbed it on last week’s cover) is worth scrutinizing. Zuckerberg’s creation isn’t just any old flavour-of-the-month Web site: It’s fundamentally changing the way humans interact with one another in the computer age.
From a technological point of view, Facebook is hardly rocket science. As a site member, you can create a personal profile, upload photos and videos, join discussion groups, and send messages to other users – all tasks we’ve long been able to do on countless other sites. The wrinkle: On Facebook, users are also required to sync up with “friends” – i.e., other Facebook users who consent to be counted among your social contacts.
The friend-list defines the Facebook experience. When someone adds information to his Facebook profile – say, that he broke up with his girlfriend, or went on vacation, or lost his job – all his friends are notified on their own Facebook pages. In essence, the site acts as a customized aggregator for the personal day-to-day news generated by your peer group.
The friend-list also defines what Facebook isn’t: a place to meet new people. You do occasionally hear media reports about friends of friends who fall into conversation on Facebook and get married. But the structure of the site ensures this is a rarity: Friends can access your profile page. Non-friends can’t (unless you specifically let them). Facebook is strictly a place to network with people you already know.
This is more groundbreaking than it sounds. Facebook excepted, social networking on the Web is dominated by MySpace, dating portals, open-access discussion boards, videogame fora, and other sites that cater to strangers — strangers who fill the awkward gaps in their knowledge of one another with emoticons, exclamation marks, flirty blather, and way too many LOLs and ROTFLs. The resulting social dynamic comes off as artificial and juvenile — which is why the words “we met on the Internet” continue to carry a vaguely embarrassing stigma to this day.
Facebook’s rejection of this dynamic represents a wholesale backlash against the utopian 1990s-era hope that the Web would make best friends out of strangers just by letting them e-chat with one another. The site’s structure reflects the realization that true friendship requires spending time with a person in the bricks-and-mortar world.
This help explains why the “Facebook effect” can be so warm and fuzzy. When you scroll through your friends’ news updates, photos and videos, it feels, in some disembodied yet comforting sense, like walking through an actual neighbourhood full of people you know. In this regard, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the site evolved out of a traditional Ivy League campus environment – the sort of place where your friends all live within a few hundred yards of one another, and casual social networking takes place every time you bump into them while strolling from class to class. Facebook is a way for adults trapped in the isolated, asocial world of cars and cubicles to recreate something of the campus quad from their desktops.
Or does it go even deeper than that? Consider: During the 10,000 years that came between the invention of farming and the invention of Facebook, almost all of our ancestors grew old and died in tiny, isolated neolithic farming communities – places where anonymity was non-existent, strangers were a rare sight, and daily information transfer involved a sort of Facebook-like gossip exchange among relatives and longstanding neighbors (albeit more along the lines of “I’ve been struck by the plague” than “I’m totally psyched for the new Bourne.”). The degree to which this ancestral past shapes our social present has been quantified by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who famously concluded that the maximum number of close social relationships a single person can maintain is about 150 – a ballpark figure that, I can’t help but notice, is intriguingly close to the tally of many veteran Facebook users on my friends list.
Coincidence? I think not.
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