The Facebook phenomenon

Facebook, for the uninitiated, is “a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them”.

Evolving from an Ivy League networking tool into something that allowed horny Mid-western teenagers to meet and screw, Facebook’s primary appeal now is that it makes it very easy to find friends you’ve lost track of.

This is no different to Friends Reunited, but how many of us can remember our login details for that, if we ever had any? I think the main problem with Friends Reunited was that they started charging for content that wasn’t worth paying for (frankly, if it isn’t really kinky porn or WoW I’m not coughing up). Also, Friends Reunited was pre-MySpace, and MySpace has changed the interweb for evah.

It’s hard to say whether Facebook will ever rival MySpace in size. Launched among a limited user group in 2004, it now has 57 million users. Launched only a year earlier, but with no restrictions to signing up, MySpace boasts more than 200 million users. (They both pull more traffic then Wikipedia!)

But it is the limitations on Facebook that support its popularity. Users create a profile, but also control who can see that profile. They can moderate the amount of information available to different people, and they can get in touch with people without giving out personal contact details.

Which brings me to the point of this rambling introduction…

What is it about this social construct that makes us suddenly want to get in touch with people we haven’t seen for decades? This is no bad thing – I’ve enjoyed catching up with school friends I don’t see much, and it’s always interesting knowing what old flames are up to, but the madness goes further than this.

What is it that makes a sane person befriend their ex-wife, or their sister’s housemate’s cousin’s brother-in-law, whom they met once on a night out? Is it because it’s so easy, or because we perceive it as safe? The same questions apply to our old friends – it wouldn’t be too difficult to look people up armed with just a phonebook or an address but we don’t.

I found and contacted a school friend with zero online presence (honestly, I didn’t even know you were allowed to get an NI number without an email address!) just using Google and the name of her previous (not current) employer. It probably took about 4 minutes to reach her on the phone.

Yet, as I said, we rarely do this. Why? Are we scared of telephones? Where they a brief fad that flickered into existence in the 20th century only to be extinguished again in the 21st? Or is it that Facebook (and networks like it) make it so easy to quietly ignore someone should you so choose, minimising social awkwardness?

What is the small psychological hook on which we hang such a difference in behaviour?

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