Sorry, Cory: Facebook More Like the Phone than Friendster

In InformationWeek, “How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook,” Cory Doctorow predicts Facebook’s demise because

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I’m inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook’s-law parallel: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.”

For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.

It’s not just Facebook and it’s not just me. Every “social networking service” has had this problem and every user I’ve spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that’s why these services are so volatile: why we’re so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace’s loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list — but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who’ll groan and wonder why we’re dumb enough to think that we’re pals).

You can read the rest of the article here, but I think Doctorow (not a Facebook friend, and I’ve never beaten him up, either) is mistaken in his analysis. When he says “every user I’ve spoken to has been frustrated by” the problem of the Biffs of their past

coming Back to their Future, it suggests to me that maybe Cory flocks with some nervous birds. His reported experience doesn’t match mine at all, and my 40 or so co-worker friends on Facebook have a different story, too. Many of them are amazed at the people with whom they have reconnected. And on the few occasions they’ve gotten an unwanted “friending,” they just ignore it. Some are more active on Facebook than others, but none have felt the need to pack up and leave.

If it really was a 1-1 ratio of pleasant relationships renewed vs. creepy reminders of the past for “every user,” Facebook wouldn’t be growing at its phenomenal 3 percent per week. This is just the hyperbole of a columnist who makes a name by being controversial.

Facebook is much more like the phone than it is like Friendster.

There was a time when the telephone had lots of potential to put people in awkward social circumstances, during the party line era. Before the technology evolved to allow each family to have its own direct line and number, particularly in rural areas, several would be joined on one line. Each house had a different ring (or number of rings), but it rang in every house on the circuit, so you never knew for sure which of your neighbors was eavesdropping. See an Andy Griffith Show rerun for examples.

Direct lines made all the difference in creating some privacy, and as the number of people with phones increased the potential number of connections, the growth of the telephone accelerated. (That, incidentally, is why the Zune was a bomb; Microsoft touted the ability to share songs wirelessly, but that’s useless if none of your friends has a Zune.) But as phones have continued to evolve, so that now families like mine have six cell phones and no land lines, this is the way everyone communicates, whether by voice or by texting their BFFs.

Likewise, as Facebook continues to grow by 250,000 people per day, it becomes increasingly likely that you will be able to find and connect with long-lost friends. Or as Jeff Jarvis notes, younger people probably won’t lose touch with high school and college friends, unlike their parents’ generation.

Facebook’s privacy settings, if you take time to adjust them, have largely solved the “party line” problem. And when Facebook implements different categories of friends, a process that surely is underway, its “social graph” will recognize the fact that one label doesn’t fit all. Nick agrees.

Cory may even want to include his seventh-grade bully among his “acquaintances” if Facebook develops such a category, so he can keep tabs on Biff’s whereabouts. But I don’t understand why he should be so mortified about ignoring a friend request or “unfriending” someone. Does he think that person will seek him out for a physical pummelling?

Facebook’s pending multiple categories of friends, each with different user-defined levels of personal disclosure, will give the fainthearted an angstless way to move people into a more distant orbit without ejecting them from their personal solar system.

Facebook has billion$ of reasons to not become the next Friendster, and I’m pretty confident that Zuckerberg and Co. are learning from the mistakes of others and will build in the multiple friend levels that will make Facebook an important way for almost everyone to communicate. You’ll go there because your friends are there, and because you don’t have to hang out with those who aren’t your friends.

Packing up for a different social networking site may be an easy way to avoid an unpleasant social situation, but it still takes effort. I’m confident Facebook will do what it takes so people won’t feel a need to abandon the links they have in Facebook.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

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