I’ve spent lots of blog space and podcast time pooping all over Facebook. Saying how it is for kids, that it’s AOL 2.0, that it’s the internet kiddie pool. I was right, and I was wrong. Mostly wrong.
Facebook is all of those things, of course, but perhaps in an evolutionary- and not a pejorative- way. More than anything else, Facebook is like Brawndo: it’s got what people crave. Over time I have mostly capitulated to Facebook, simply because it’s the only path to a lot of people I want to interact with. I create almost all of my content out here on the big, scary web, but I push a lot of it into Facebook. And I visit Facebook several times a week to see what all the non-nerds are talking about. Granted, there’s a lot of talking over each other, but there’s a little interaction. Which is more than you can say for Twitter.
With all that, I started to wonder just what makes Facebook so popular.
It’s partly the ready-made platform to connect with other people. It’s partly momentum. It’s partly that MySpace sucks so completely.
But mostly I think it’s the names. You know, those things beside the users’ photographs. One thing Facebook got totally right is the absence of anonymity. Anonymity is like cars- it brings out the inner asshole in people. It has killed before, and given the chance would do so again.
Anonymity, with a helping hand from Google, killed newsgroups. Those of us who have been on the internet long enough to remember when news readers were for reading Usenet posts, as opposed to RSS feeds, miss the days of the old-school newsgroup. It was all kinds of good, until anonymous assholes and spammers killed it. I haven’t read a Usenet newsgroup in years, and don’t even have a news(group) reader on my computer.
Then came the message boards. For a decade or so, message boards proudly carried the banner of online interactivity. The combination of better technology and community moderation generally kept the spam under control. But a large population of anonymous users first diluted the perceived content value of message board sites to the point that advertisers stopped buying ads, and ultimately destroyed the entire message board culture, via bad information, bad behavior and general mayhem. All of which could be doled out at will without fear of reprisal because of anonymity. Sissies grow giant stones behind the safety of a windshield or a message board handle. It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even frequent the message board sites I founded. Rather, I create Google alerts or FriendFeed pages for topics I’m interested in. It’s not as fun as the old message board days, but it’s better than watching a revolving group of anonymous jerks litter my screen with nonsense.
Meanwhile, over at Facebook, people are sharing information under their real names. Sure, you can create a fake identity and set up a Facebook account, but users who are prudent with their Friends lists can easily avoid most screen clutter. You generally know who you are talking to. With a name comes accountability, and there is a direct correlation between accountability and behavior. All of which creates a better experience for the users. Which draws more users and, in turn, more advertisers. Ultimately you have digital high tide that raises all ships.
Which is why I ended up with the rest of the world on Facebook. Even if I still find it vaguely embarrassing.