Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"
If there was any doubt about Facebook's lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you're the kind of person who likes the sound of a benevolent dictatorship this clearly isn't one.To be honest, Facebook doesn't seem quite as bad about this as other (such as MySpace, which has the chutzpah to make logging-in users click through interstitial ads, knowing that cool-obsessed teenagers will endure any amount of intrusive advertising as long as it's bright and flashy and ugly-nu-rave enough). Though all this could change if it does start using your name and picture to endorse some product which you once bought. (Though if it does this, it could be on shaky legal ground. It's quite likely that its retroactively amended click-through agreement would, following the great click-wrap power-grab tradition, state that users will consent to endorsing all products they buy without their knowledge in return for their fix of zombie vampire monkey robot ninja action, though whether any sane court of law would find this reasonable is another matter.) Certainly, them having removed the ability to opt out of their marketing programme does feel rather sleazy.)
Fear not, though, as Cory says that Facebook, like all other social networks before it, is doomed, by a simple law which limits the lifespan of a social network to the initial period of growth:
Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).
Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.As more people join a social network, the tensions increase. Turning down a friend request is socially awkward, and unfriending someone literally says to them "you're dead to me". (OMG, teh drama!) As people from all walks of life join your friends list, the range of things that are suitable for discussion among all of them narrows considerably. Eventually, with your boss, your relatives and your friends all reading your profile, you're restricted to the most innocuously content-free of communications, until you stop bothering to log in, and your Facebook account goes the way of your long-moribund Friendster, Tribe and Orkut logins.
Of course, then comes along the next social network service, and the cycle begins again. Perhaps the next service will learn from its predecessors' mistakes and offer users the vitally important ability to compartmentalise information, to make certain parts of one's profile visible only to certain subsets of one's friends list. This is not a new idea; LiveJournal has allowed its users to do this with journal posts for a long time, and Flickr has a somewhat more limited version of this concept (allowing photos to be restricted to people flagged as "family" or "friends"). However, if a social network system is to be able to cope with real-world social relationships, and the fact that people present different aspects of themselves to different friends and acquaintances, such a mechanism is essential.
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