The point technology passes from a choice to necessity is not clear but there is a point. Cell phones were once a choice, an option, but try locating a pay phone and having coins the moment they are needed. Computers were once a choice but try attending college without one. Air travel was once a choice but try finding viable options to cross the globe in socially acceptable time. So, too, the necessity of Facebook looms.
Now, to put the necessity of Facebook in context, it is essential to understand that Facebook is symbolic. It is the current face of social networking technology. It is Friendster v3. It appears to be a technology necessity but it may only represent it. Nonetheless, it will serve this discussion, if only it is a placeholder.
Even after technological necessities are integrated into everyday life, they are not necessarily embraced. Today, for example, people both love and hate email. Email overload is a constant complaint but an email outage is a horrible, life threatening experience. Without email, business simply would not function or even exist for many in the workplace. Some that now must use it daily, at one time, never cared for it, thought it was dumb, or just a fad. Those ideas were destined to die with the CDs that propagated the sweet, sweet sound of “you’ve got mail.”
To be fair, the early days of email, like a lot of technology, was dumb. For whatever reason, the paradigm of the day was to create ridiculous email addresses like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. There were not too many rules, as long as the handle had at least an age, birth date, or a particular interest like a hobby or sports team as part of it. Bonus points were scored if alternate spellings were used for common words, all to ensure that a person was destined to unsuccessfully send email to friends like email@example.com.
It took some maturing but email became the Web’s killer app. The second coming of the Web — Web 2.0 – included technology like blogs, wikis, RSS, and podcasts; they haven’t fully materialized. Important? Certainly. Necessity? Definitely not. They had little chance though. After all, their names are “blog,” “wiki,” “RSS,” and “podcast.”
The reality is that while simplified over the past several years, these awkwardly named technologies in no way became as accessible as email. At its most fundamental level, email requires a login, password, and knowing a person’s email address goes in the “To” field. Even technophobes have (mostly) mastered email.
It was its accessibility that helped email flourish. Accessibility prevents technical know-how from limiting adoption to only tech savvy individuals. It is the wider adoption that produces the network effects required for explosive growth. In nerdier circles, this latter concept is embodied by Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a network grows as the square of its number of users.
Facebook has realized Metcalfe’s Law unknown times over. It learned from its less sophisticated social networking predecessors and innovated around simplicity and accessibility. For example, instead of allowing screen names, Facebook forced people to use real identities, with actual names tied to a legitimate email address. It placed people in “networks,” helping them find their college peers and eventually, friends from geographic areas.
By some accounts, it is now ranked as the top social network. Since then, the stats have been constantly paraded even though they didn’t need to be. Getting that Facebook invite from grandma was the only “stat” required.
Is “everyone” being on Facebook enough to join it? Are the mind numbing elements of Facebook enough to not? Could Facebook be surpassed by an Internet giant, fledgling, or some future unknown entrant? Have you completed your “25 Random Things about Me” yet? These are all questions to be answered. The answers, in order, are: no, no, yes, and who cares.
The “social utility” that is Facebook has come into its own. Yes, it has critical mass but more significantly, it is changing the way people view, understand, and consume the Web. Yes, it facilitates inanity, as does the Internet as a whole, but it is also providing ways for people to engage each other online. Not users. Not screen names. But people…with their true, known identities.
Perhaps most importantly, is that, for better or worse, Facebook and other social networks, define the Web for an entire generation. This same generation does not use email, watches most of its TV online, and is constantly connected. Facebook is their world of fun and world of work. They send messages to friends but also organize fundraisers. They discover where both the weekend parties and study groups are.
Facebook may not be the final manifestation of the technological necessity of social networking. There may not be one single “social network to rule them all.” But the writing is on the wall. At the very least, Facebook presents a glimpse of a piece of the Web that will be part of any Internet users experience. Abstainers, those who choose not to participate, will have coins for their calls, only to discover that pay phones no longer exist.