Facebook came online at Harvard ten years ago today. It seems both obvious and unlikely that it has really been that long, but of course, it didn't hit the general public until the fall of 2006. That's when things got really interesting.
I don't know when the term "social network" became a thing, on the Web at least, but we had social networks online many years before that. I started one in 1998 called Guide To The Point (later PointBuzz.com), and another in 2000 called CoasterBuzz. Most online social networks in those days were a lot like that, serving a fairly specific niche, with a forum as the hub between people. I can honestly say that half of my friendships are rooted in those sites. I experimented with a blog-based community back in the day called CampusFish, too. It had limited reach of maybe a dozen people, but it was definitely an online social network.
Facebook changed things for a number of reasons. It wasn't a niche social network. It got legs as a niche network, at a university, but it broke out of that niche in just over two years. I remember thinking at the time that status updates were completely stupid, in part because I enjoyed reading and writing a blog. Like a lot of other people, I too post whatever random shit comes to mind.
Mounds have been written about how Facebook is used today, but for me it doesn't necessarily fit into the mold that is often described. I still have a (relatively) small number of friends, and most are people I know in real life, and have at the very least met. When I do post something, I don't have a general audience in mind, but a specific group of people: About two-dozen of my closer friends, and probably some family. The rest, well, I guess they get it too, but it isn't "for" them. I also post for myself. In some ways putting your thoughts in front of others keeps you more honest with yourself.
I do not post to the public. My privacy settings are specific like that. Furthermore, I have a "no looky" list of people. I'm fine having them be able to contact me or have that electronic link, but they don't get to see everything I post.
Initially, almost everyone I became friends with was in college, and most of those people were former volleyball kids. That shouldn't be surprising, since they were all on Facebook for at least the prior year. Next came a few co-workers and friends. After that, college friends. It was at least five years before I started seeing people from high school. And of course, as I've traversed life, I've met people and they've come along for the ride. My total friend list is still under 400, and of those, two are deceased. (Not sure what you're supposed to do in that case.)
People often ask if we're better off with the Internet in general, and Facebook in particular. Of particular interest is the quality of the relationships people have via the online world. I think it's too broad of a spectrum to make any generalizations. I personally can't imagine spending a lot of time watching what people I don't know do or have to say. Whether it's Facebook or elsewhere, I have a finite amount of time to consume what's there. For that reason, I try to make what I have count, and not be superficial.
For example, one family we're friends with I met for the first time more than a decade ago. Through all of the chaos and changes, they've always been "there" and in touch with me. We see each other in real life maybe once or twice a year, sometimes vacationing together, and we always seems to just pick up where we left off. I have a number of similar friendships like that, and they were all born via online channels, and they're very valuable to me. I wouldn't have these relationships were it not for the Internet. I can say for sure that my life is better for it.
There are a great many friendships born in real life that would be hard to maintain were it not for the online world, and this is especially true for people I've worked with. After all of the moving, in the old days, these would be hard to keep up. Some people ask if you should hold on to them at all, and I say absolutely. Having a network of people is insanely valuable.
One of the interesting things about this online connectivity is that it's largely passive. As long as the people participating contribute, posting what they're doing, photos of their kids, or whatever, you keep up with each other. It's very efficient. Where it falls apart is with the people who do not actively share their lives. I have one close friend who basically doesn't exist online, and it's frustrating because it's a friendship I very much want to persist. There is no solution to that problem.
Pundits are constantly declaring Facebook is dead, but as long as it's being used by the people you want to keep in touch with, I think it will be around for a long time.