After resisting for awhile, I took the Facebook leap this summer. In a way, it fits my techy side, although I suppose the success of Facebook is really more predicated on how un-techy it is. For example, I've been sharing pictures with family and friends for years, setting up my own custom-designed albums, etc. all without the use of Facebook - but it's becoming clear that a big part of Facebook's appeal is that just about all the content comes straight to you; not only do you not have to work very hard to upload content - more importantly, you don't have to work hard to seek it out.
I've realized that one reason my Doctor in Spite of Himself website wasn't a huge success is that it still required getting someone to the site in the first place. My experience tells me that asking people to go visit a website or even emailing them about it doesn't yield much, even from college students, who I once assumed were as avid about searching the net as I am. For me, the dawn of the Internet was most importantly about the thrill of the search - the fact that I could actively go out and find just about anything. But, the student generation that has driven the Facebook phenomenon seem to be much more passive about all that information. I'm amazed at how often I have to tell students how to seek out recordings and scores - I'm supposed to be the old geezer here.
Facebook's biggest strengths are its newness (it's not even 5 years old!), its omnipresence in the life of its users, and the way it pushes information out to those users (which is what keeps them present). Social networking has been possible for years on the net. My far-flung family used to have such a wonderfully busy email circle that I was able to turn 7 years of group correspondence into a telephone-book-sized Christmas present a few years back. (I need to blog more about this book at some point: it's 500+ pages of incredibly small text - and all my reading-mad family members read it cover to cover!) However, it takes work to keep that sort of thing going. The genius of Facebook is that it builds community (i.e. atracts committed users) from the virtual equivalent of small talk - which isn't so strange, since small talk is an important part of any community. Yes, there's something Samuel Beckett-like about the Facebook world.
All of this is hard to appreciate until you've actually tried Facebook for yourself - I finally joined, in part, because I could never grasp just exactly what made it work until I jumped in. I still don't know for sure what I think, but I've been surprised to connect not only with past and current students but with high school classmates I hadn't seen in more than twenty years! In fact, that's probably what I've enjoyed the most, although I suspect that the ongoing intrusion of forty-somethings into the world may be what spells its doom. How long can the college students be content to share their cool world of endless party photos and idle chitchat with distinctly less cool older people - who also post (old) party photos and idle chitcat? (Please understand that I hold idle chitchat in the highest regard.) Or, Facebook may move beyond its college-level core identity and become something more - well, who knows?
I went to a faculty lecture about Facebook this week, and was startled to be reminded how new Facebook is, how young its leader is, and how many missteps the company has already made deciding how to handle all this personal information that people have casually tossed out into the unknown. One thing that's clear is that the Facebook powers-that-be understand that the medium has to keep changing to seem fresh - which means there's no telling what's next.