"We don't know what it can be. We don't know what it will be. We know that it is cool." Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in a scene from the new movie The Social Network, which opens today.
If Facebook sometimes feels like a small town, with everyone peeking in your business, that's because it is.
And if Google's success stamped the last 10 years as the Search Decade, then Facebook's ascendancy heralds the Database Age, where the most popular website doesn't organize the Internet, it organizes you.
This summer, restaurateur Andrew "Wilko" Wilkins asked for help with his business — and boy, did he get organized.
Faced with closing his St. Pete Brasserie when sales dropped by $10,000 per week, Wilkins posted a plea for help on several local Facebook pages, including Downtown St. Pete, with its 25,000-plus members. The message attracted media coverage, a 25 percent boost in business and two new investors.
But Brian Bailey, who co-founded the Downtown St. Pete page and I Love the 'burg website, hesitates to take full credit for creating a cyber spatial town square with the power to transform somebody's business.
"More than anything, we just gave people a push," he says, cautiously.
But if you ask me, we're going to be hearing a lot more stories like Wilkins' as Facebook — already a half-billion users strong — continues to revolutionize the way people connect.
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Six years after Facebook's debut as a Harvard-only site, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's The Social Network arrives in theaters to spin a yarn about the roots — and lawsuits — behind the site's infancy and early development.
The movie focuses on fights among those who built the service but leaves aside a larger question: Where is all this connection taking us next?
I've been living these questions as a Facebook member ever since the service allowed the public to join in 2006. While sharing everything from my latest column to a conversation with the governor among my more than 4,300 friends, notions of friendship, privacy and community connection have been transformed forever.
By immersing myself in the site and talking to others who study it, I've come up with some ideas about where Facebook is headed. Click on "Like" if any of this rings true.
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David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, says inventor Mark Zuckerberg compares the service to a gift economy. The currency? The contributions you make to all your friends. Someone posts a link to an important news story you can pass along; later, you upload a photo someone else finds valuable — paying it forward, Facebook style.
Ultimately, this network flattens corporate and political authority, allowing anyone to galvanize chunks of Facebook, as long as others value the gift. And as Facebook refines its Open Graph technology, your friends can recommend outside websites and online material, all of which appear in your news feed. Instead of going out onto the web, your friends bring the web to you.
Where can things go from there? Think about Facebook Credits, Zuckerberg's virtual currency used to purchase games and applications inside the network, and it's easy to imagine users buying movie rentals, designer clothes or even groceries with such cyber spatial dollars.
Yearbooks will be quaint relics. Today's teens may be the first generation who never lose touch with each other, carrying past friends and acquaintances through their lives, moving on but also perpetually in high school.
One easy criticism of Facebook is that it devalues the word "friend," slapping the term on anyone you let access your personal, or "profile" page. But that criticism ignores an important benefit: the power of the crowd.
In a potent blog post, online media expert Jeff Jarvis describes a scene in The Social Network that outlines a real anecdote from Zuckerberg's college career. In it, he gets high grades in an art class by e-mailing images of the works to classmates, collecting feedback and building consensus — and understanding — among his peers.
Facebook now allows anyone to amass that kind of social leverage, which can be used to save a restaurant or your grades.
Facebook is building a future where the more public you are — the more gifts you share — the more power you have.
Take that, Howard Hughes.
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While experts complain about Facebook's complex and ever-changing privacy settings, some say people are less frightened by a loss of privacy than an unexpected surprise.
"People know their credit card company knows everything," says blogger, author and new media expert Seth Godin. "But if you get an e-mail saying 'We've noticed you sending flowers to a woman who isn't your wife, here's a coupon for STD testing,' you're not going to say, 'How thoughtful.' People want control and no surprises."
But even if some users don't have as much control as they want — many still balk at the way it lowers privacy standards — it's not easy to just opt out. Facebook's ubiquity draws in even the most skeptical users, and anyone who doesn't sign up risks looking like one of those Luddites who won't get a cellphone. Sharing fully with friends online — especially if they're among the site's fast-growing, 45-and-over contingent — often requires joining the service Zuckerberg insists on calling a "social utility."
Critics say Facebook has another drawback: It encourages narcissism in members. Jean Twenge, an associate professor at San Diego State University and author of The Narcissism Epidemic, cites studies showing the network's shallow requirements for friend connections and rewards for a carefully crafted personal image can bend personalities toward narcissistic traits, especially among young people.
The Social Network shows a fictionalized Zuckerberg indulging the kind of narcissism Twenge criticizes, obsessively developing Facebook by borrowing ideas, resources and money from others and then discarding them, even cutting his best friend — his only friend, really — out of the company.
But when the professor told her students that social media platforms like Facebook were turning them into a generation of narcissists, she got a surprise. They agreed, but with a caveat: to succeed in their highly competitive, hyper-connected youth culture, such self-focus was necessary. Mandatory, even.
There's just one problem. They're wrong.
"Narcissism blows up in people's faces; you tend to make the wrong choices, and nobody likes a jerk," says Twenge, who recommends encouraging empathy and compassion among kids to combat the narcissism of our connected culture. "Reality TV and social media make narcissism seem not only normal, but rewarded. And most times, it's just not true."
Which may be the most poetic twist of all. Turns out, the cure to Facebook's dark side is just more connection.