February 6, 2009

The End of Facebook

I might be jumping the gun a bit here, but I think Facebook has made some fatal mistakes. Its growth plan is flawed and out of touch with those who use its service. Granted I don’t have any hard data about Facebook’s users, but I have used it for the past four years and noticed some negative trends.

A few years ago Facebook opened its doors to high school students all over the United States ending its time as a college only network. The move made a lot of sense and didn’t do much to change the user experience. Facebook also spent a lot of time ensuring adequate security for minors who were most of its new users during this period. There were also several cosmetic changes and the interface was overhauled, but nothing that incited any lasting criticism.

The addition of high school students made sense because the demographic wasn’t that different from the one they were already serving (college students). Of course to Facebook building a network of people from mid teens to mid twenties was not enough and they began courting adults in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond. The logic here was that older users are better consumers to collect data from because they hold most of the nation’s wealth. This makes sense from a financial perspective, but ignores the impact this will have on its user’s experiences.

Facebook’s problem can be best explained by citing an old episode of Seinfeld. In one particular scene George shouts "Worlds are Colliding"; he is not pleased that his friends (Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer) have become friends with his girlfriend (Susan). George explains that he preferred his relationship with Susan being separate because it allowed him the comforts of a dual identity. The point is that when Facebook was launched most of the people using the network were part time/entry level workers, or didn’t have jobs at all. They didn’t worry about pictures of them stoned out of their minds popping up all over the place, or the fact that they’d listed their political beliefs as Fascist because there wasn’t anyone to judge them. There also wasn’t the risk that parents and family members would see any of this because they were not participating. By including adults Facebook has created a situation in which one's personal life, career, friends, family, and romantic interests are no longer separate entities.

I can't tell exactly how much of an impact these changes have had so far. I also don’t know whether or not my perceptions are simply a product of the aging process from the beginning of college to the end. What I can say is that when I first began using Facebook there was a tendency for users to cram every interest, quote, and favorite band onto their page. Recently

I’ve noticed the opposite as many people keep their information as brief as possible; careful not to give too much away. People are rightfully nervous of what potential employers, parents, and family members might find out about them. I notice this not just amongst people my own age who will soon be graduating, but also with people still in high school. This wouldn't be a problem for Facebook except for the fact that filling out personal information is exactly how they plan to make money. Their plan is to sell your consumer information to the highest bidder. People will be bombarded with advertisements for every sport they play, band they listen to, and television show they watch. There are endless possibilities here, but only if Facebook can continue to gather this data.

Of course this whole thing could just be a sign of a new cultural movement. If Modernism dealt with the destructive nature of modern technology, and Post-Modernism the fractured identity, then perhaps Post Post Modernism will describe a world in which identity is something concrete; defined by one’s Facebook. If that is the case I wonder if the inability to wear different faces and experiment with identity will make it more difficult for people to evolve and change. I look at the idea of all of these different elements of life being consolidated with fear, but maybe it will simply be a fact of life in the future. I can’t predict the future and it is possible I'm behaving just like members of previous generations; I look to the future with fear and criticize what I don't understand.

CNN - Facebook

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