“I just don’t get Facebook and that type of stuff” a man once told me “I just don’t see myself using such a service”. In fact many people told me the same thing over and over again. What is there not to get though? I don’t get what you are not getting. I’m not saying everyone should be using Facebook. I’m not even saying that Facebook is a good thing. I’m just saying it is a service that has become quite ubiquitous in the last few years and as such it has a tremendous value whether you like it or not.
The way I see it, Facebook accomplished something that no other company managed to do up until now. It took a long look at what people do on the internet, and then packaged set of utilities that facilitate those activities in a neat package, implanting it in it’s established social networking hub. To explain this a little better, let me list the things an average person does on the internet and illustrate how Facebook embraced it making it accessible even to the dumbest user:
The me, email is one of the three fundamental pillars of the internet (the other two being the World Wide Web, and Chat/IM). It’s something that you do on the internet – you email people, people email you, you register for mailing lists, mailing list spam you into oblivion and etc… Email is great but it has several problems that users like to complain about. One of these used to be client setup. Thankfully today this is a non-issue since most computer users don’t even know what an email client is. Thanks to Google, we now have accessible, non-retarded webmail interfaces all across the board. Even glacial non-innovators such as Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon and have a neat AJAX driven online mailing service now. The major problem that remains unresolved is spam.
Now, stay with me here. How does your average, dumb as dirt, computer idiot use email? I’m talking about a person who thinks that the big E on the desktop stands for Eenternet and who collects spyware applications as if they were pokemons. Does such an individual utilize email the same way we do? No of course not. Email is a tool for sharing links to Youtube videos, forwarding chain letters to everyone in the address book, medium for writing badly spelled and grammatically incorrect love letters or facilitating social drama. Your average internet user never actually needs to send an email to anyone beyond their close group of friends and relatives.
Facebook gives such an individual a personal inbox and ability to send email to anyone in their social network without the annoyance of Spam and/or Phishing. It is a safer and more contained environment, and one in which Joe Shmoe does not need to remember that Sally’s emails is XxHotStuff6xX9@hotmail.com – he just picks Sally McWhatsherface from his friend list when he needs to send the email. It’s easier, safer and more convenient up to the point where some people don’t actually even use email. For example, the only way to actually reach my brother or my dad is through their preferred social network (facebook and nasza-klasa.pl respectively). Both of them do have regular email, but they hardly ever check it since social networks almost completely eliminated the need to do so. All the important messages get sent via the in-network mail service. Stuff that goes to regular mail is mostly spam, and/or registration confirmations.
Back in the day I used to be a big fan of the universal instant messaging app called gAIM, which was later renamed to Pidgin. I loved the little toy, because it allowed me to simultaneously chat with people on various IM networks. Most of my friends used AIM at the time, but I knew people who were dedicated MSN users, and few who preferred Yahoo. To keep in touch with all of these people I needed to either install and run 3 different clients, or a single good one.
Here is a fun fact: I have not used Pidgin in over 3 or 4 years now. I don’t even install it on new machines anymore. There is just no need to. Most people I knew sort of abandoned their old AIM accounts around the same time Facebook chat feature became popular. Now, whenever I actually need to talk to someone in real time I don’t even bother launching the IM client. I head for Facebook and use the in-browser chat thingy. It’s not that I choose this service over others. For the most part I don’t care what service and/or protocol I use as long as I can reach people. If I really had to choose one IM protocol I would pick Jabber because it’s open. But alas, no one I know uses it. On the other hand, every-fucking-body and their mom is on Facebook these days and that is by far the easiest way to reach them.
I’m sure it’s probably not true for all regions, and all social groups but around here Facebook almost completely replaced conventional IM when it comes to regular one-on-one conversations.
Does anyone remember how people used to share digital pictures before facebook? I do, and it was annoying. Most of the time it involved setting up an account on a picture sharing site such as Webshots uploading your album and then emailing the link to everyone. Then all your friends would have to create their own accounts to view/download these pics. And since there were several such services available, you usually ended up with your picture collections scattered all across the web. There was no central location to view all of these, and no such thing as tagging. Therefore if you wanted a picture taken by your friend to show up in your album, you had to download it and then re-upload it yourself.
Facebook revolutionized picture sharing scene with the tagging feature that completely eliminated the download/re-upload cycle and made sharing pictures a social activity where friends could tag friends, comment on the pictures and etc. This of course is not to say that it is a good photo sharing service. It is quite the opposite. Facebook is absolutely dreadful when it comes to picture quality. It compresses all the images you upload turning them into low resolution shit. If you want high res copies you still have to use email, or decent photo sharing service such as Flickr. But if you just want to see the pics of the crazy shenanigans that took place at that one party, Facebook is probably the place to go.
Do you guys remember that time when having a clever away message on your IM was the thing to do? I remember people running their IM clients 24/7 to harvest messages while they were at school or work and couldn’t chat. Setting up appropriate away messages was sort of an art. Some people used to have a while library of quotes and or witty one liners for every occasion. Others used them the way we use Twitter and/or Facebook status updates today – to notify others where they are and what they are doing. That is really where Facebook got the idea.
Now status updates it became it’s own thing and became adopted by dozen of other services. It became something more than just a an away message. Twitter molded this idea into a something like an asynchronous IM broadcast. Facebook took that concept and refitted their status system to be exactly that. Now users can use their status updates to share links, pictures, videos and etc.
Does facebook have the best implementation of this feature? Maybe, maybe not. But it does have a large user base and that counts for something.
Ever since Facebook published it’s API, people have been coming up with more and more complex apps. One area of particular growth are the Facebook games. There are few dozen of those and they tend to fluctuate in popularity. Last year I saw a lot of people playing the Vampire game which was based on recruiting people for points. Nowadays my Wall is spammed with messages generated by some Maffia game instead. Few months ago everyone was playing some stupid game with little flash based animal crossing/sims like thing where you would play mini-games to earn money and furnish your house. Now everyone plays Farmville.
Most of these games are simple, straightforward and mildly entertaining to everyone except me. I personally hate the damn things, but I do see their value to other Facebook users. They seem to really enjoy them – and what they enjoy even more than the games themselves is their social aspect. Before Facebook, flash games used to be mostly a solitary activity. Some games did offer head-to-head or competitive modes but if you wanted to play with your friends you had to sort of make them sign up, then find each other within the games and etc. Facebook games almost always leverage the social API functions, so you can automatically invite all of your friends to join you when you singn up. The friends who already play the game will automatically show up and be available for competitive and/or collaborative game play.
There is nothing special or revolutionary about this, but Facebooks large user base means that you may get to play with people who previously couldn’t be bothered to sign up for silly online things like that. Now all they need to do is to click that “Accept” button when they get an invite, and they can jump right in. Facebook simply streamlined the casual gaming experience for a lot of people.
Conclusion… Of sorts…
This is what Facebook is all about. It’s not some abstract social thing the kids are using these days. It is basically a unified portal that bundled all the common communication and entertainment services in a single neat little package. Instead of using separate applications for email and IM, different websites for picture sharing, different communities for discussions and gaming people now use Facebook. It has all of that stuff in a single place, integrated with the social networking aspect of the website. The users get a single address book for everything: email, IM, picture sharing, discussion boards, gaming, etc.
You want to check your email? Go to Facebook. You want to chat? Facebook. You want to exchange pictures? Facebook! You want to share a funny link with all your friends? Facebook. You want to play a flash game about farming? Facebook!
Is this a good thing? Probably not. For one, it is a walled garden community. It is also rather unhealthy to place all your eggs in one basket. It creates a single point of failure. Not to mention that some of the services offered by Facebook just plain suck. I personally despise Facebook’s email system, I hate what it does to uploaded pictures (Facebook compression FTL) and as a rule I don’t install any Facebook games. But despite all of it’s flaws, the damn thing is convenient. Especially for people who are virtually to stupid to live. Yes, Facebook makes it possible for computer idiots to actually communicate efficiently via the internet without calling tech support every 5 minutes or hurting their brain. These people would probably commit ritual sepuku if they had to set up their Outlook to work with a POP email account, and would actually call me at 3am to ask how to “paste photos into email”. Now they can do it all with virtually no hassle. Even better – it allows us to reach out to them using their own medium, rather than force them to use ours as they cry and whine about computers being hard. It is a win-win situation for all of us.
Do do you see what I’m getting at here? Facebook allows techno-idiots use internet without irreversibly injuring their brains with knowledge. Do you get it now? Do you see why it’s so popular?
How is Facebook valuable to people like you and me? It’s simple – it’s the network. Let me put it this way – I was never a big fan of AOL, but I used their IM service extensively in the past because that’s what my friends were using. Nowadays I use Facebook for the very same reason. All my friends, family and acquaintances are there. It is an easy and convenient service that allows me to interact with everyone I know or care about.
Eventually, people will probably find some other service that’s better and even more convenient than Facebook. And then another one after that. But that’s no reason not to have an account on the current service. It’s not abut getting it, or not in a philosophical sense. It’s not about liking it or not. It’s about communication. If all the people you know are on Facebook and you are not because you “don’t get it” then you are missing out. On the other hand, if none of your friends use the service then you can probably remain blissfully ignorant until they start nagging you to join it.
Do I sit on Facebook all the time? No. I long in every other day to see what is going on. For everything else I just rely on the email notifications and facebook app for the Blackberry to let me know when someone sends me a message, tags me in a picture and etc… To me it’s a tool – a communication service. Nothing more.