About a month ago The Social Network hit wide release across the country. It garnered very positive reviews and hit the #1 spot in the domestic box office for a couple of weeks, and it’s easy to see why. The acting was great, the direction was spot on, and the script was one of the best I can remember in a very long time. It was just a phenomenally constructed movie overall. But I think there was something else about the film that attracted people to it as well. It provided an origin story for one of the most influential and important innovations of the last decade, and it did so unapologetically and without pause. It was awesome.
Facebook has become the link that connects people who otherwise never would have known that the other existed, and it did so in less than eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than two presidential terms, a kid at Harvard found a way (while drunk, no less) to hack into the picture files of almost every house in the university, create a website comparing them, turn that into a more advanced social networking site, extend it to other schools nationwide, get advertising, create a business office, and obtain over 500 million users (and $6 billion for himself, I might add) to date. That’s a twelfth of the entire world. And all this without charging for his services.
So the question remains, how did he make it work so well?
Obvious statements about the novelty of all new websites aside, I would argue that Facebook has reached the status it has today because it is the first truly functional online community where people can create and live “second lives”. It doesn’t limit itself to gimmicks and it isn’t as narrow in its focus as the Match.coms of the world. In fact, part of Facebook’s inherent appeal is its utter lack of focus, beyond the basic “Name”, “Location”, “Likes”, etc. information that it requests of all of its users.
We can sign on and establish a network of friends—real or imagined—whose subsequent status updates allow us to interact with these people as though we are meeting them for coffee or having a drink at the bar. And with the ability to have the updates forwarded to our respective emails, Twitter feeds, and mobile devices, there needn’t be a second where any of us is out of touch with the world of our virtual alter-egos.
If I am Clark Kent, my Facebook profile can be my Superman. I can have as many “friends” as I want (so long as they accept my friend request—and let’s face it, most people do without hesitation), I can post my witty thoughts about nothing as frequently as I like and have running dialogues about them, I can post pictures as real or altered as I choose if I wish to display myself as the hero that I so want to be, and I can offer comments and critiques of the thoughts and pictures of all the people in my network. Essentially, Facebook allows us not only to live in a different world while we’re online, but also to shape the world as we see fit. Where else in “real life” can we accomplish these feats so easily?
And the ease of using Facebook is probably its greatest feature, and I’ll end this post with a comment about that. For most people over the age of forty today, computers generally can be viewed with both fear and anger, especially when they are required to complete daily tasks and chores.
This clearly isn’t the case for everyone in that age group, but I have heard enough “Why can’t I just send in a check like I always did?” complaints about electronic billing, and “How do I turn the Internet on?” questions over the last few years to know that technology doesn’t always represent progress for everyone. But even the most technologically uninclined people have found ways to master Facebook and all of its (many) sideshows with relative efficiency. The proof is in the pudding. How many other sites can boast of having just as many nine year old as ninety year old members? Not many. And when you consider the half billion person membership that Facebook has overall, facts like these are just astounding.
So where does this leave us? Probably not too far from where we began, but perhaps with a slightly better understanding of just how incredible the Facebook phenomenon has been over the past decade or so. The very fact that low-level applications like “Farmville” can proudly proclaim to have over ten million unique users (and millions of dollars in revenue) demonstrates how much of a second life Facebook has become for many.I don’t just want to have some pictures and conversations – I want to own a farm, plant some crops, and do it all without my “neighbors” catching my high score. It’s like Donkey Kong on steroids. So the next time you login to change your status, or add a friend, or milk a cow, take a second to sit back and reflect on just how powerful an idea that kid at Harvard actually had while sitting drunk in his dorm room. It’s simply amazing.
Post image by Brandon Christopher Warren