Even though Facebook currently has over 200 million active users, many people continue to doubt the value of social networking in general and Facebook in particular. Critics argue that Facebook and other social networking and Web 2.0 tools - including blogs and Twitter - are symptomatic of the “solipsism” (meaning, in this context, the self-absorption of users) of the contemporary Internet.
Indeed, Facebook can be an enormous time-waster and procrastination tool, as can any medium or Internet resource. I’ve reflected a lot about my own use of the site over the past six years or so, and I’ve asked myself whether it is a worthwhile use of my time and an appropriate way - one among others, obviously - to communicate with my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.
The debate was largely settled for me a few months ago when I heard a remarkable lecture by Clara Shih, social networking expert and author of The Facebook Era.
Shih spoke in April at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and I was in attendance to sell copies of her book. (I was working as a manager at a bookstore at the time). I went in with low expectations, as I generally take a dim view of the overcrowded genre of popular business books in general and books on making money through technology in particular. But Shih’s presentation blew me away; she made me see Facebook and social networking in an entirely different light, and she helped me understand the many complex issues involved with social networking, and the utility social networking tools can have for those willing to critically evaluate and monitor their use of them.
The core reason for Facebook’s popularity, according to Shih, is that it lowers the cost of keeping in touch. Keeping in touch with people you’ve met is a difficult and time-consuming process. Facebook makes it much, much easier. And it can help us keep in touch in a more meaningful way: there is less need to small talk with distant friends about where they are working, what they are studying, where they are living, and so forth - it’s all out there on their Facebook page, and so we can keep track of people we’ve met as they move through their lives. When we think of them, we can think of who they are and what they are doing now rather than who they were when we met them years before.
This powerful idea was brought home to me again this month, as the host family I lived with in Italy for ten weeks in my sophomore year of college joined Facebook and “Friended” me. It takes a lot of effort to write a letter in Italian, put it in an envelope, wait in line at the post office to buy international postage, and finally send it - but it takes ten seconds to write on their “walls.” And so I am much more likely to do the latter than the former, and our relationship need not be weakened by our falling out of touch.