How did we live without facebook?

As part of the multi-stage group project, my students have to prepare a set of PowerPoint slides and present them in class. The topics vary, and while I have a running list of technology related subjects they can use, I do allow them to come up with their own stuff even if it is not related to technology. This year quite a few people elected to do presentations on social networking and more specifically facebook.

This sort of surprised me. In general, I usually advised people to pick a broader topic which is social networking. This way they can talk about various services, and will find much more usable information. But, some people were adamant that they wanted to talk about facebook. After some probing questions I realized something very interesting. For a lot of my students:

Facebook ≠ Social Networking

It is not just one of many available services. It is more than that. In addition to being THE service for social interaction it is also a communication platform. It replaces email, IM, calendaring, address books, class schedules and etc.. Other services like MySpace are auxiliary at best. College students apparently live and die by Facebook, and it is by far the most common website I see open when I walk around the computer lab helping people with their work.

Some time ago I have noticed that Facebook has superseded IM in computer labs. In the past students would try to install AIM or MSN on university machines to talk to their friends. At some point this ceased to happen because the IT dept. finally figured out how to lock down these machines. But chatting did not go away. Students migrated to browser based solutions. And guess what – Facebook actually has an IM functionality built into their service. Not only that, but it is sort of a a super network – everyone is on it these days.

In the past, an average IM user often had to install multiple clients. If some of your friends were on AIM, some on MSN, some on Yahoo network then you either installed all 3 clients or learned to use a multi-protocol client such as Trilian or Pidgin (formerly known as Gaim). Either that, or convince friends to switch over to your preferred protocol. Thus, whichever service gathered a critical mass of users, would usually become default for that given community. Facebook exists above and beyond protocols and allows everyone to connect with everyone without the need for client software of any kind. Thus, more and more people consider it their primary IM platform.

What is even more interesting, one of the 4 groups who talked about Facebook mentioned that they can’t imagine living without Facebook anymore. The girl who was presenting reflected how in the past, if you wanted to meet and hang out with people you actually had to pick up the phone and call them. The way she said it was amusing though. She talked about picking up the phone the way I would talk about using punch cards for programing. Something backward, ancient, outdated and archaic – something she can only vaguely imagine doing for social purposes. Apparently calling people is a social faux pas these days. Not that I mind that – I hate calling people. I much prefer email.

Of course she didn’t even mention email. I talked about it before – my students don’t really use email to communicate with each other. It now seems that IM is heading in the same direction though. Text messaging is quickly replacing it as the primary mode of instant communication. Perhaps rightfully so. Text messages are protocol independent, require no client software, and allow to maintain communication while away from your computer. Not to mention that you can send and receive Facebook updates from just about any phone via text messages.

What I’m seeing right now is breaking down of traditional modes of communications. Instead of “one-on-one conversations” carried over the phone, IM or email we now see people moving toward broadcast streams and bursts. They broadcast their status, and activities on Facebook where it is instantly picked up on their friend’s news feed. No need to hunt people down to get them informed about activities. Never before did students have the capability to publish information in a semi-public, semi-private setting this easily. They don’t need to know anything about hosting, HTML, RSS feeds, RSS readers – they just push a button and they are done. Privacy settings are easily configurable and they get a fairly tight control which parts of their constant information stream become public, and who gets access to them.

For more direct communication they send rapid bursts of Text messages. The contents are short, direct and abbreviated. The exchanges are quick and fractured. You don’t really have a “conversation” this way. At least not the way you would do over IM or email. It is a burst driven, point-to-point information exchange with very tight constraints on the amount of data you can send at a time (140 characters or less). Not enough space to build full sentences – only enough space to convey a short message.

This seems to be a perfect fit with typically hectic daily schedule of an average student who needs to balance classes, social life, schoolwork and part time job(s). They don’t have time for the slow paced communication via IM or email. If their message is long enough to require few sentences and an actual keyboard to type in, they will publish it. If it’s that long, it probably will need to be sent to more than one person. If it’s short and sweet, it will be sent directly to the recipient’s phone.

It will be interesting to see if and how this burst and stream communication will translate into corporate settings. Will the college graduates learn the culture of the almighty phone & email as they enter the workforce, or will they bring this new mode of communication with them. Perhaps high powered corporate leaders of tomorrow will switch their blackberries to iPhones which have much more functional browsers and myriad of Facebook apps available. Perhaps memos of the future will be distributed via company’s Facebook stream and instead of short and badly spelled email from a blackberry you will instead get Text Messages like “need ur tps report now!”.

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5 Responses to How did we live without facebook?

  1. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    Here in Portugal we still use manly IM messaging (along with SMS). Nobody really knows Facebook and the only thing they use besides IM is Hi5, but manly for sharing photos. I’m a kind of a stranger between my peers. I don’t use much my phone and I’m still amazed by the fact that their messages arrive at the same time that the network “report”.
    I even forget to run pidgin, and still prefer the old fashion bulletin boards where you can answer in a couple hours and nobody’s nagging you.

    It seems I will be “left behind”… This days even the toasters tweet, but I’ve never even registered at that.

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  2. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Hi Luke,

    Burst messages and streams in the corporate world are happening already. It might not be “mainstream” yet, but it is far from uncommon. It does not happen only on Facebook (LinkedIn is still by far the favorite equivalent in our business world) but it does happen on it too. And on Twitter, and various other similar applications. More interestingly, maybe, it is in no way reserved to internal communication. Most people in marketing are beginning to learn how to master external communications on these “social media” as well. I hate calling these social though, because I think they are extremely ego-centered. But they are some sort of modern agora or forum (in the Ancient meaning). You publish there if you want to be heard. But mainly if you want to be heard by your peers.

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  3. Rob UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    So we’re not allowed to call people anymore? I suddenly feel old.

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  4. Dax UNITED STATES Opera Windows says:

    Call me an old-timer, but I don’t use facebook. I typically use IM or the phone. Hell, I don’t even text people. To me, facebook seems to expose just a bit too much about a person. Even if you try to keep things limited, things tend to get out. Plus, I’m not too keen on old high school mates sending me random messages.

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  5. ikaruga UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Interesting article. I’m starting to feel old and I’m only 30 :-) I signed up to facebook one time and I didn’t see what the big deal was. I agree with @Dax@, there are too many Big brother issues. I do a lot of texting though — usually to send short bits of info or questions, like “I’m eating at…, come over.” If it’s too long or complicated, I’ll call.

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