Read this weekend's NY Times piece on Facebook's explosive growth (from 100 million to 200 million in one year). For all its recent user revolt—usually via their status updates, ironically—the only social networking site that matters is growing at 1 million users a day. But the article asks the legitimate question of how this growth—that now includes your mom, boss and old junior high friends—helps or hurts Facebook's community and usefulness. I guess it depends on how you use it.
I learned early on the downside of social media, having been publicly burned by my ex-girlfriend on Friendster. Thank god I only had about 60 friends back in the spring of 2003. But that was enough to teach me a few things about privacy controls and safeguarding my password and profile. I dread to think what an attack on my Facebook profile would mean with nearly 2800 friends getting a real time feed. Since then I've heard and witnessed several stories of friends and acquaintances who had exes stalk or terrorize them via MySpace or Facebook. Guess I was sort of a pioneer.
What the NY Times piece reminds us of is that in this ever connected and status obsessed online ecosystem, you have to constantly be vigilant about your connections and information. It's a given that perspective employers are looking at your profile, but less understood is how more benign connections and looser degrees of separation can come back to haunt you. When you leave a comment on a photo or add a friend, who sees that? And, more importantly, what do they make of that connection? Are you guilty by your associations when matched against somebody else's? Does your business competition derive trade secrets from your status updates, or even your wall posts, no matter how cryptic? Assume the answer is yes to all of these.
Facebook actually has some pretty smart privacy controls to limit your potential embarrassment and sequester your real friends from the randomness of your extended social graph. But the company estimates only 20 percent of its users know how to or chose to use them. It's worth exploring these tools and making some adjustments and always remembering that six degrees of separation is a myth. It's really one to two.
The other poignant question posed in the piece is how Facebook can hope to remain a place for multiple generations to congregate in harmony when you reach a state of critical mass (I'd say we're about there). And how do bosses and staff co-exist? And how do moms, their girlfriends, and even their moms mingle a profile or two over from their teenage kids? Creepy? Weird? The end of life as we know it?
“Uniting disparate groups on a single Internet service runs counter to 50 years of research by sociologists into what is known as 'homophily' — the tendency of individuals to associate only with like-minded people of similar age and ethnicity.” —NY Times
I really don't worry about the kids. Never have. As they say, the kids are alright. Always will be. In fact, I'd argue that until adults (read: moms and dads) really get Twitter, that will fast become the new hangout and real life status update. I'm sure, by now, Facebook status is as private as posting a note on the family fridge. But @whoever updates still have an air of intimacy to them, even if that won't last. One thing the Times article didn't discuss was how much Twitter's recent rise lead to Facebook's new look and more instant feel. Facebook may have also learned, though, that people liked its uniqueness and don't want it to be Twitter necessarily. At least not yet.
In the end, if you're not one of those with social media phobia, this is all about the pursuit of a more perfect digital map for your world. We all want to use these tools to do everything from find a job, get laid, bitch, share, or just show off. And only the slowest adapters fail to see the slippery edges of total inter connectivity (Watch that post!). For them, they'll learn soon enough. For the more experienced, and for those who learned the hard way, we'll hopefully be part of the next wave, on Facebook or beyond. Helping those super smart developers in the world's Silicon Valleys build us ever better water coolers.