Facebook: Population 200M, Faces an Identity Crisis

When I first wrote about Mark Zuckerberg, his young startup was called TheFacebook.com and he had just moved to Palo Alto, Calif., from Boston. The site had signed up some 2 million students at 430 colleges. Fast-forward to today: Facebook has a hundred times as many members, including parents and grandparents of those hyperactive college students. What was once a convenient way for college kids to hook up has now become the newsfeed of our post-Google lives.

Facebook’s rapid growth is, to put it bluntly, an astounding achievement. Yet as the company stands on the verge of greatness, it’s facing an identity crisis. Zuckerberg & Co. have let themselves turn green with envy over the latest Silicon Valley phenomenon, Twitter — and in the process, have set out to mutate Facebook’s own DNA.

Facebook, by its very nature, is mostly about our past, sometimes about our present, but very rarely about our future. Being symmetric, it’s important that we have some sort of a prior relationship with a person in order to friend them on Facebook. Your classmates, neighbors and the folks you met at a party — these are all relationships from your past. Facebook doesn’t really allow you to discover new people — and that has been the part of its charm (and utility).

On Facebook, photos, videos, and news items about folks in our social graph (address book) allowed us to keep in touch with tens of people all the time without so much as dialing a phone. We immersed ourselves in each other’s lives, serendipitously. By developing technologies that provided context to the information coming from our network, Facebook saved the most elusive modern commodity: time.

Facebook’s recent redesign brought Twitter-style updates into its service, a move that’s been met with considerable opposition from Facebook members. Twitter allows almost anyone to follow (or discover) anyone else based on their celebrity, interests or location. Twitter is about infinite affinity circles. Facebook is not. By allowing a torrent of status updates into our Facebook pages, the company has destroyed what made it special: its ability to construct a constantly updated newspaper about us. With Twitter-like updates, the site has lost its intimacy, flooding us with a lot of white noise. It’s become less personal — and less social. (Read: Facebook COO’s attempt at justifying the recent changes and spinning them as great advertising opportunity.)

Back in 2005, when I profiled Facebook for Business 2.0, Sarah Williams, a freshman at Berklee School of Music in Boston told me, “What makes it (Facebook) so much better than Friendster is that it’s your peers rather than a random assortment of people.”

Maybe this blast from the past is something Mark, Chris Cox and some of the smart young people who make up Facebook should think about.

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