- Related Stories
Net generation comes of ageJuly 9, 2007
Social networks geared for offline success?June 22, 2007
Facebook's app feeding frenzyJune 15, 2007
Facebook welcomes outside servicesMay 24, 2007
MySpace plans new video channelsMay 15, 2007
Battle of the social-networking sitesMarch 21, 2007
One of my work colleagues likes to shove that line in my face whenever I verbally stray into the realm of the painfully obvious. But technology adoption moves in fits and starts, and who can really predict the watershed event that officially crowns something as a phenomenon? I've been thinking about that a lot recently, especially after watching the surge in interest from the mainstream media in social networking.
Truth be told, I can't come down hard on the Johnny-come-lately crowd. This has been a slow voyage of discovery for a Beatles-era boomer like yours truly. Growing up in the late 1960s, I was ever wary of The Man and so remained entirely underwhelmed by the idea that I should contribute my own personal info to some goofy technological "community"--let alone one run by Rupert Murdoch.
My kneejerk response: Fuggedaboutit!
But even old yuppie farts have to change with the times or risk winding up like yesterday's fish. Social-networking sites may not all get the details right. But they all benefit from the big truth that some things about human nature don't change. For instance, people love to yak about themselves, and there's obviously no shortage of voyeurism out there. Even though that's not always going to work to the benefit of the larger culture, you have to take the good with the bad.
Besides, this has been nothing short of fascinating to watch develop. I must confess that some of it still leaves me perplexed. In particular, the concept of privacy that I grew up with no longer seems relevant. (If you think that's a positive or negative development, post your take in the TalkBack area below.)
No such similar hang-up has prevented millions of people from warming to the idea of engaging with others online in concentric mini-networks of interest or friendship. Maybe it wouldn't have happened as quickly, were we back in 1997, but now it's entirely natural for people to communicate in this way.
That's one reason why I finally got off the fence and went with the flow. The clincher was the stunning--dare I say counterintuitive?--success enjoyed by MySpace.com. This remains the biggest social-networking site of them all, yet the site features the most brain-dead user interface I've ever encountered. And it hardly matters a whit.
With a due nod to the great Buffalo Springfield, it became clear to me that something's happening here--even though what it is ain't exactly clear.
I don't know whether I'll ever become head over heels in love with this sort of thing. So far, social networking's popularity has been a generational thing, and I'm too much a prisoner of my past. Still, it's growing on me, and that's why I'm sticking with it. But I'm getting picky about where I'll spend my time.
While MySpace is currently No. 1, I'm not convinced that it's going to keep its lead for long. There are any number of small things about MySpace that irritate the hell out of me. Fakers hide behind phony handles, and the system assumes that I'm on the make for women (between the ages of 18 and 35, and between 3 and 7 feet tall).
Above all, the welcome screen is always cluttered with junk that's of absolutely no interest. I've since instructed the system not to make "sex fiend" my default setting. No matter, since I'm spending most of my "social networking" time on Facebook anyway.
Facebook's twentysomething CEO Mark Zuckerberg made early mistakes, but he's learning. A little more than a year ago, the company moved beyond its limited college audience and opened up the network to everyone.
In May--and this was a prescient decision--Facebook opened up to let developers write applications for the platform. When Zuckerberg finally decides to sell or take the company public, that decision is going to be worth its weight in gold.
I caught Zuckerberg's talk on a panel discussion earlier this week at a San Francisco conference sponsored by Fortune magazine. Since opening up the platform, he said thousands of applications have been developed on the network.
"It has certainly grown a bit faster than we had originally expected. We thought there would be a lead time," he said. "That whole process got condensed to about a week."
It took only a week for the first new application to attract a million users. Now more than half the users have added an application to their Facebook pages. That's viral with a capital V.
Anecdotally at least, it's working. In the last month, friends and colleagues both report getting a flood of Facebook invitations from people they know. What's more, ComScore reports a surge in traffic from teenagers and adults since Facebook moved to open registration.
We can quibble about whether one social-networking site or another does the better job fostering community. I'll leave the wonky debates to others, but this concept is still in the early innings. The first student cohorts who have grown up with social-networking sites are leaving school, and now the graybeards are joining the conversation.
The next big thing? It's shaping up that way.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
10 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment