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    Over at her LJ, Angela writes "I don't really get what I am supposed to do with Facebook. What is the appeal?"

    Lord knows I have asked myself this question enough times, not about Facebook per se but about various other social-networking type sites... long-time readers of this blog may recall that I once did a freaking six-part series on this topic way back in 2004 (one, two, two, three, four , five, six).

    The gist of some of those old posts, in a nutshell, is a complaint that many of these sites bill themselves as being services through which you can meet new people, and yet they systematically deny users the tools necessary to sort the dataset in ways that would help a user to actually meet new people. Facebook, which has some of the most inviolable privacy controls in the social networking world, strikes me as one of the ones that's hardest for everyday people to use in this regard (although I can see that this might be different if your network were especially close-knit; it is significant that Facebook was developed for use on college campuses (specifically Harvard) and has been open to the general public for less than a year).

    But in any case, in the intervening years, I've come to think of the very label of "social networking sites" to be something of a misnomer. In my own experience, it seems that people are using them more as "social modeling sites." By which I mean that people use them mostly to keep in touch with friends that they already have. People hit the sites, sign up, add their friends, and then (often) stop looking around any further than that.

    My own experience is an admittedly limited pool, but researcher danah boyd, crunching data gathered by the PEW Internet & American Life Project, finds that the numbers bear this out: "91% of teens are using social network sites to stay in touch with friends they see in person while only 49% are using them to meet people (ever)."

    A lot of these sites struggle because people (adults?) can't be bothered to go in and update their profiles on a daily basis, which limits their value as a way of keeping tabs those people. (Have you logged into Friendster or Orkut lately?) One of the things that's genius about Facebook is that it's so friendly towards third-party plug-ins, which, if you play your cards right, can allow your profile to update steadily without ever even logging into Facebook. My own page has widgets from Netflix, del.icio.us, and Last.fm, all of which auto-update as I go about my daily business of watching movies, scavenging links, and listening to music. If I could find Flickr and LibraryThing plug-ins that I liked, my profile would update with photos and books, too...

    Granted, checking out what I'm listening to, linking to, or photographing is a poor substitute for (say) face-to-face interaction, a phone call, or a letter, but I think that to view them in an either-or schema like that is missing the point: all that Facebook minutia just serves as an extra layer of information that a friend can have access to.

    Wired journo Clive Thompson, in a enthusiastic piece on Twitter and Dodgeball, describes the minutia that flows through these services as "granular updates," and claims that these updates ultimately yield a "subliminal sense of orientation." I think we could think of Facebook in the same fashion.

    Once upon a time I might not have been convinced that being constantly in micro-touch with people would have been at all appealing, but given that constant overages have forced me to switch to a phone plan that allows me to send unlimited text messages, I think it's safe to say that those days are safely in the past.

    Update: after discovering the Scrabble plug-in, Angela no longer wonders what Facebook is for. :)

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    Friday, September 07, 2007
    12:08 PM


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