Facebook's future

by Rob Horning

19 October 2007


I’ll admit to rooting for Facebook to fail, in part because something about “founder” Mark Zuckerberg rings false, whether it’s the allegations that he stole the basis for his site from his college buddies or his visionary claptrap about social graphs or his wardrobe-based attempts to emulate Steve Jobs. Maybe I’m not interested in sharing enough to use a site that encourages you to share everything, as if that’s inherently good. (Perhaps it is, but only for marketing purposes.) And I’m not interested in a continual update of what other people are doing while they are on the web, which seems voyeuristic and bland simultaneously—destroying the whole illicit thrill that is presumably supposed to come from voyeurism and rendering it routine. It all becomes data to process.

Much of my energy is already spent filtering the abundance of information, and I suppose a site like Facebook is meant to help, but it instead seems a tool to make information proliferate, to generate more linkages that I’m supposed to invest myself in finding use for. And now that it’s become a platform for third-parties to program for, it threatens to reap even more automated pseudo-meaningful connections between people in networks, automating the work of friendship and perhaps stripping friendship of much of its richness. Or it will also mimic another time-wasting tool, the Mac Dashboard (or like NetVibes, a customizable web homepage that you can clutter with widget like mini applications). Sometimes I start to think about trying to make more use of the dashboard, at which point I try to force myself to spend more time away from the computer. I don’t want to be so glued to my computer—I don’t want my life so mechanized that I feel the need to have a computer-based dashboard for it. The dashboard is undoubtedly useful, but to make use of it, to reap its efficiencies, one would have to be so devoted to computer-centricity that there’s no telling how much else is being sacrificed.

Basically, I’m a grumpy old man when it comes to social networking sites, for similar reasons as Fortune columnist Brent Schlender lists here: “I’m 53 and somewhat unsociable, so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. But it’s not just me: Once people have demanding jobs and marriages and kids, their social lives narrow a lot, and they just don’t have the mental bandwidth or time to stay current with so many friends.” Facebook potentially irritates because it shines a spotlight on how little time adults have for non-familial relationships; it’s demographic—though a highly coveted one for marketers and a highly impressionable one to boot—would seem to have a built in expiration date and built in limitations. Perhaps the generation growing up with social networking will continue to integrate it with their personal lives, but it seems much more likely that, as Schlender suggests, the technology will become institutionalized—will become part of office culture that people will want to tune out as soon as they leave work, which ever more associated with being tethered to a computer.

When adopted by companies and social organizations and other controlled environments, Facebook and the applications that can be built upon it could be, of all things, a management tool. It could be a friendly means to reinforce corporate or institutional culture; a method to keep far-flung telecommuters in the fold and in the know; and a digital water cooler for trading the useful gossip that sometimes lubricates a work group.
And when it comes to helping employees make the most of their benefits and perks, a Facebook system could provide the infrastructure for the mother of all HR systems.

A giant HR system? Ooh, sign me up! Great, a way to blur the lines between work and personal life, so that I’ll feel obliged to subject more of myself to employer scrutiny and be more available to employers through the insidiousness of the network.

The Economist is also skeptical of Facebook’s future, arguing its value has been overestimated amid the recent rumors of its imminent absorption into Microsoft or Yahoo. Facebook, it points out, is an address book, and when it reaches a certain size, it becomes useless; it ceases to organize or filter and instead becomes just another thing crying out for grooming, demanding more attention than we have time to give it.

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