A few days ago on The Awl, Ken Layne asked, “Is this the beginning of the end for Facebook?” He was referring to a story in the Guardian about the fact that Facebook lost some 600,000 UK users in December of 2012, according to data from a Czech startup called SocialBank. That doesn’t seem like that many people (it’s less than two percent of Facebook’s UK users), but some are taking this statistic as a sign that our insidious social network of choice has reached a “saturation point” in its “core markets,” to quote the Guardian. That means that “continued growth is increasingly dependent on the developing world.”
Reading that, it’s hard not to visualize long-ago Friendster when it tanked in the US and suddenly became a destination for (seemingly only) Filipinos. I remember vainly searching for some boy on there years ago and seeing hundreds of results for people with his name, let’s say it was Chris, and Filipino last names. Whomever I was looking for may have still had some phantom profile on Friendster, complete with friend recommendations (remember those?) and blurry, lopsided profile photos taken on cheap Nokia cell phones back when cheap Nokia cell phones were all we could hope for. But I was never able to find it, and I’m not sure why I was looking.
Is this the future of Facebook? The only difference may be that when we get word of the Facebookalypse — and it will probably happen when Facebook gets so desperate for money that it asks us to, say, “promote” our own profile pages — we’ll loot our profiles of every last identifiable photo and leave some skeletal representation of ourselves for posterity, or just so we can log in when we need to and get so-and-so’s phone number off her profile. This last is my chief reason for being on Facebook in the first place: it’s an address book more organized than any I could be bothered to make myself, and somehow more trustworthy than something I’d store on my computer or tuck in a drawer, because it’s in the cloud, and it’s dynamic, requiring no updating on my part.
“Something is trendy — until it isn’t.”
This quote appeared in a recent article about a different topic entirely, but it sums up my years-long suspicions about Facebook. Recently my opinion started to shift, however. Facebook has been competitive for longer than MySpace or Friendster ever were. It’s so big now that it has no competition at all, unless you count “the new MySpace.” Social networks in general have shown more longevity than other trends that were trends “until they weren’t” (the deals phenomenon spearheaded by Groupon and LivingSocial comes to mind). Goodreads is thriving. Twitter is doing fine. There is a market for getting information from people you know, or who you know by degrees through someone else. Or who you wish you knew.
Facebook announced this week that it is finally entering the search market with the introduction of a poorly named tool called “graph search,” which is currently available to a few thousand users and in the coming months will expand to more. The idea is that your Facebook friends (and presumably friends of friends) will provide higher quality, more relevant search results to you than Google or Bing has so far offered.
Somini Sengupta’s story about this on New York Times’ Bits blog began provocatively enough: “Facebook has spent eight years nudging its users to share everything they like and everything they do.” This is a chilling sentence, really. But hundreds of millions of us have indeed been nudged. I’ve checked Facebook about eight times already today. I’ve got all kinds of other apps — Nike, Goodreads, Twitter, TaskRabbit — feeding into my Facebook account. I “like” all kinds of friends’ postings, and I post dumb videos and cool videos, and I RSVP to events, and promote my writing, and occasionally check in to a bar or a restaurant. I actively do things on Facebook every day. In fact, in the past year I have decided, in that half-conscious way that most online activity is decided upon, to consolidate most of my online activity onto Facebook. As I get more skeptical about new offerings and more disenchanted with popular existing tools like Twitter and Instagram, I invariably turn to Facebook, which is as surprising to me as it is to any Facebook naysayer reading this. I used to be one of you.
Weirdly, Facebook has started to become more useful about the same degree to which it has become really annoying. I find it helpful to be able to find and RVSP to events, for instance, or to join groups or “like” pages related to my interests. But the main thing is that I’ve become a big fan of sharing information only with people I actually know, as opposed to peers or cool people I’ve never met and complete strangers who found my profiles through my writing, or who knows where else. While in Canada over the holidays, I quit Instagram, realizing that it would probably be more productive for me to sit at a slot machine than continue to scroll through Instagram until the end of time (or the day its user agreement became irrevocably intolerable, whichever came first). The experiences feel similarly defeating.
I’ve recently watched as some of my Luddite friends have started to use Facebook more and more, and in a variety of ways that speak to its apparent (for now!) indispensability in our lives. Friends use Facebook to check in to places, eschewing Foursquare. They post their Airbnb listings. They share silly photos. They post petitions about gun control. They make plans with friends. The propensity to share has started to drive some of us crazy, of course. Facebook does have a MySpace feel, especially given all the silly photos. But the news feed tends to show people’s true colors, which I find fascinating (and occasionally enervating). Who knew my old neighbor loved Bruce Springsteen as much as I do? Or that my old friend likes nature walks? These types of discoveries have only endeared Facebook to me — or rather, endeared my friends to me. Yes, that’s where Facebook has us. Facebook is the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, making all this social connectivity — however shallow, however random — possible. There is the feeling that, as a viable public company, Facebook is all smoke and mirrors.
Would I care if it all blew up tomorrow? I would (but don’t push me, Mark). There is a casualness to Facebook that I don’t feel exists anywhere else online at this point. People seem the most themselves on Facebook. Twitter, on the other hand, seems to breed passive aggression, caffeine-addled quips and defensiveness, all of which I’ve definitely displayed myself since joining the site in 2009. Filter through all that and you will find camaraderie, useful information and good jokes. But to me, Twitter is no longer worth the investment of time. It’s not a place of solace. On Facebook, people seem, well, happier, more at ease, and I suspect it’s because they’re in the company mostly of people that they actually know in real life, whereas Twitter seems to be more of an even split between strangers and friends. Friends who aren’t good at emailing or calling (or even texting) will send me Facebook messages. It’s a bit like high school, when someone you liked would talk to you during the class you shared but would otherwise ignore you. I’ll take what I can get, I’ve decided. My world is already too fragmented for me to pull the plug on Facebook.
And consider what’s more annoying: incessant photos posted by friends and intended to make you laugh, or ads and “suggested pages” inserted into your feed by Facebook HQ? At this point I would say the photos. I don’t pay for Facebook, this instant link to my scattered 500-odd friends and family members around the world, so why shouldn’t I have to scroll through a few ads before I get to my friends’ “news,” some of which I find interesting and heartwarming? For now, I don’t actually have to interact with the ads, or even read them. And if a certain friend’s posts are annoying me, all I have to do is uncheck “Show in News Feed” (as opposed to unfriend them, which would seem rash).
Facebook is the only online membership, save for the New York Times, that I would feel lost without, and it doesn’t even cost anything — yet. I don’t miss Instagram, I barely check Goodreads anymore, and I only go on Twitter a couple of times a week. But Facebook is my people, and until Zuckerberg et al do something truly terrifying to crash the party, I will be there, declining questions about how I “feel,” vehemently “hiding” ads for wedding photographers, and remaining perpetually frightened that I have accidentally “liked” some male friend’s shirtless photo.