Also in Slate, Michael Agger analyzes the competition between Google and Facebook for our social-networking loyalty.
At 1:37 a.m. on Jan. 8, Mark Zuckerberg, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of Facebook, posted a message on the company’s blog with news of a milestone: The site had just added its 150-millionth member. Facebook now has users on every continent, with half of them logging in at least once a day. “If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria,” Zuckerberg wrote. This People’s Republic of Facebook would also have a terrible population-growth problem. Like most communications networks, Facebook obeys classic network-effects laws: It gets better—more useful, more entertaining—as more people join it, which causes it to grow even faster still. It was just last August that Facebook hit 100 million users. Since then, an average of 374,000 people have signed up every day. At this rate, Facebook will grow to nearly 300 million people by this time next year.
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you already belong to Facebook. There’s a good chance everyone you know is on Facebook, too. Indeed, there’s a good chance you’re no longer reading this article because you just switched over to check Facebook. That’s fine—this piece is not for you. Instead I’d like to address those readers who aren’t on Facebook, especially those of you who’ve consciously decided to stay away.
Though your ranks dwindle daily, there are many of you. This is understandable—any social movement that becomes so popular so fast engenders skepticism. A year ago, the New York Observer interviewed a half-dozen or so disdainful Facebook holdouts. “I don’t see how having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ is leading to any kind of substantive friendships,” said Cary Goldstein, the director of publicity at Twelve Publishers. “The whole thing seems so weird to me. Now you really have to turn off your computer and just go out to live real life and make real connections with people that way. I don’t think it’s healthy.” I was reminded of a quote from an Onion story, “Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn’t Own a Television“: “I’m not an elitist. It’s just that I’d much rather sculpt or write in my journal or read Proust than sit there passively staring at some phosphorescent screen.”
Friends—can I call you friends?—it’s time to drop the attitude: There is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook. The site has crossed a threshold—it is now so widely trafficked that it’s fast becoming a routine aid to social interaction, like e-mail and antiperspirant. It’s only the most recent of many new technologies that have crossed over this stage. For a long while—from about the late ‘80s to the late-middle ‘90s, Wall Street to Jerry Maguire—carrying a mobile phone seemed like a haughty affectation. But as more people got phones, they became more useful for everyone—and then one day enough people had cell phones that everyone began to assume that you did, too. Your friends stopped prearranging where they would meet up on Saturday night because it was assumed that everyone would call from wherever they were to find out what was going on. From that moment on, it became an affectation not to carry a mobile phone; they’d grown so deeply entwined with modern life that the only reason to be without one was to make a statement by abstaining. Facebook is now at that same point—whether or not you intend it, you’re saying something by staying away.
I use Facebook every day, and not always to waste time. Most of my extended family lives in South Africa, and though I speak to them occasionally on the phone, Facebook gives me an astonishingly intimate look at their lives—I can see what they did yesterday, what they’re doing tomorrow, and what they’re doing right now, almost like there’s no distance separating us. The same holds true for my job: I live on the West Coast, but I work in an industry centered on the East Coast; Facebook gives me the opportunity to connect with people—to “network,” you might say—in a completely natural, unaggressive manner. More than a dozen times, I’ve contacted sources through Facebook—searching for them there is much easier than searching for a current e-mail or phone number.
In fact, Facebook helped me write this story. The other day I posted a status update asking my Facebook friends to put me in touch with people who’ve decided against joining. The holdouts I contacted this way weren’t haughty—they were nice, reasonable people with entirely rational-sounding explanations for staying off the site. Among the main reasons people cited was that Facebook looked like it required too much work. Chad Retelle, a network systems administrator in Madison, Wis., said he’d seen how his wife—my friend Katie—had taken to the site. But at the same time, it had changed her: “Now she’s obligated to spend time maintaining her Facebook page. She’s got to check it every morning. I have no desire to do that.”
Retelle and other Facebook holdouts also protested that the site presents numerous opportunities for awkwardness—there’s the headache of managing which people to friend and which to forget, the fear that one of your friends might post something on your wall that will offend everyone else, the worry that someone will find something about you that you didn’t mean to share. Naomi Harris, a magazine photographer in New York, says that, for all that trouble, Facebook seems to offer little in return. “Why?” she asks. “I’m on the computer enough as it is for work. I don’t really want to be there for recreation purposes, too. I have no interests in someone from fifth grade contacting me and saying, ‘Hey, I sat behind you in class—wanna chat?’ “
Finally, I heard what must be the most universal concern about Facebook—I don’t want people knowing my business! Kate Koppelman is a 23-year-old New Yorker who works in the fashion industry. She was on Facebook all through college, and she concedes that the site has many benefits. And yet, the whole thing creeped her out: “I had friends from back home knowing what was going on with my friends from college—people they had never met—which was weird,” she told me. “I found friends knowing things about what was on my ‘wall’ before I’d had a chance to see it—which was also weird.” Koppelman quit Facebook last year. She still uses it by proxy—her roommates look people up for her when she’s curious about them—but she says she’ll never sign up again.
Yet of the many concerns about Facebook, Koppelman’s is the most easily addressed. Last year, the site added a series of fine-grained privacy controls that let you choose which friends see what information about you. Your college friends can see one version of your profile, your high-school friends another, and your family yet another; if you want, you can let everyone see essentially nothing about you.
Retelle’s worry that Facebook demands a lot of work is also somewhat misguided. It’s true that some people spend a lot of time on it, but that’s because they’re having fun there; if you’re not, you can simply log in once or twice a week just to accept or reject friends. Even doing nothing and waiting for others to friend you is enough: You’re establishing a presence for other people to connect with you, which is the site’s main purpose.
That brings us to Harris’ argument: What’s the social utility to Facebook—why should you join? Like with e-mail and cell phones, there are many, and as you begin to use it, you’ll notice more and different situations in which it proves helpful. In general, Facebook is a lubricant of social connections. With so many people on it, it’s now the best, fastest place online to find and connect with a specific person—think of it as a worldwide directory, or a Wikipedia of people. As a result, people now expect to find you on Facebook—whether they’re contacting you for a job or scouting you out for a genius grant.
True, you might not want people to be able to follow your life—it’s no great loss to you if your long-lost college frenemy can’t find you. But what about your old fling, your new fling, your next employer, or that friend-of-a-friend you just met at a party who says he can give you some great tips on your golf swing? Sure, you can trade e-mail addresses or phone numbers, but in many circles Facebook is now the expected way to make these connections. By being on Facebook, you’re facilitating such ties; without it, you’re missing them and making life difficult for those who went looking for you there.
Skeptics often suggest that online social networks foster introverted, anti-social behavior—that we forge virtual connections at the expense of real-life connections. But only someone who’s never used Facebook would make that argument. Nobody avoids meeting people in real life by escaping to the Web. In fact, the opposite seems true: Short, continuous, low-content updates about the particulars of your friends’ lives—Bob has the flu, Barbara can’t believe what just happened on Mad Men, Sally and Ned are no longer on speaking terms—deepen your bonds with them. Writer Clive Thompson has explored this phenomenon, what social scientists call “ambient awareness.” Following someone through his status updates is not unlike sitting in a room with him and semiconsciously taking note of his body language, Thompson points out. Just as you can sense his mood from the rhythm of his breathing, sighing, and swearing, you can get the broad outlines of his life from short updates, making for a deeper conversation the next time you do meet up.
It’s this benefit of Facebook that seems to hook people in the end: Their friendships seem to demand signing up. Last year, Darcy Stockton, a fashion photographer in New York, held nothing back in describing her hatred of Facebook to the Observer. “If you have time to network through a site like that, you aren’t working enough,” she said. “I just don’t have the time or the ability to keep up with yet another social networking site in my free time. I feel there’s other things and real experiences I could be having in real life instead of wasting my free time on Facebook.”
Stockton now has 250 Facebook friends. In an e-mail, she explained that she’d decided to join the site when her friends migrated over from MySpace. She added, “Thank you for making me eat my words!”