I suppose that for most people, realizing that Facebook is a monster came suddenly, recently, and as something of a shock; even if they had used the social networking site to some degree in the past. Perhaps for some it was as early as June of 2007, when worldwide traffic on this relatively new startup first exceeded that of its biggest rival Myspace. For others it was when all the major Presidential candidates posted profiles on Facebook in an effort to win younger voters. For the rest it was somewhere between April of 2009 and February of 2010, when its number of unique visitors went from 300 million (roughly the entire population of the United States) to 400 million (a bit shy of the entire population of North America). But if all of these milestones zoomed by you and you still find yourself in that briskly vaporizing smidgeon of the world's populace that has never even visited Facebook, consider yourself warned – regardless of your cognitive state, Facebook already affects you.
Facebook affects your career, your business and your relationships with people. If you are an employer you already know to check a candidate's Facebook page before tendering an offer letter, and if you are one of the thousands of young people who have lost a job opportunity because you expressed a partying attitude in your Facebook comments and didn't realize your employer would see them, you know it now, too. If you are a parent and you haven't been looking at your teenager's Facebook page you could be in for a surprise, and if you are a teenager and have been acting exactly the same on Facebook as you do in the restroom at school, you should think about what will happen when your parents see your page, because sooner or later they will.
I began using Facebook regularly a couple of years ago after meeting the woman who later became my wife on an internet dating site. She is a lot younger than I am and she was already addicted to Facebook for keeping up with her bosom buddies from high school and fraternizing with fellow students at her university. She once told me, 'I usually log onto Facebook at least thrice a day – when I wake up, during my lunch break, and in the evening before bed.' Throughout our intercontinental courtship I opened her Facebook profile almost daily since that was where she posted all her pictures. I admired her images of course, but I also studied the comments she and her friends made about them, as I gained a certain sense of her through the eyes of others that I could never have acquired any other way.
However, even though I was a Facebook 'regular', so to speak, I always thought of it as a social networking site intended for high school and college students like my then fiancée. I never filled out my own profile beyond the minimum required to log in; and I never posted my own photo albums on my page (I preferred using Yahoo Messenger or email to share pics with my fiancéebecause it felt more 'private,' and because I didn't like the way Facebook often failed during mass uploads). In my mind Facebook was for my wife's generation, not mine, even though I knew plenty of people my age that used it.
That changed last summer when I moved overseas, and suddenly discovered that my 79-year-old father was using Facebook... and had been for some time. Yes, I – the first one in my family to have his own website and the only one who ever had a Microsoft certification – had become the last to wake up to the fact that Facebook is more than just a highly successful social networking site: Facebook is the cultural gathering place of the new millennium. Facebook hasknocked out Myspace, Friendster and every other competitor, and now dominates the entire globe with more than 40 percent market share. Facebook is the most significant phenomenon since Microsoft or Google. Facebook is the future.
That is, if Mark Zuckerberg doesn't blow it.
Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has suffered a string of publicity blunders relating to privacy. Zuckerberg, the company's CEO and founder who turned 26 last week, demonstrated back in his college days that he was anything but an ethical or trustworthy person. He hacked Harvard's student directory database to create his own website, 'Facemash', which ridiculed fellow students by comparing their school portraits side-by-side with farm animals. This past week some instant messages purportedly from his Harvard days – shortly after he and some dormbuddies launched Facebook's earliest version TheFacebook – were published on BusinessInsider.com and they are incredibly embarrassing if they are real. A 19-year-old Zuckerberg tells a friend that he has the email addresses, pictures, residential addresses and student ID's of over 4.000 Harvard attendees available for the mere asking. When the friend asked how Zuckerberg got the information he explained that the students submitted it to him.
"I don't know why.
They trust me.
It is almost as if Zuckerberg's personal creed is the antithesis of Google's former pledge to 'do no evil'.
If Zuckerberg is right, then Facebook will continue to grow and stomp out all competitors, using member information freely and in any way advertisers and application developers choose for the ultimate goal of making as much money as possible. If he is wrong, then as some moversand shakers of the Internet world suggest, Facebook is headed for a fall, and a major one.
Perhaps the answer to that question will appear this fall after the scheduled release of a major open-source effort at social networking launches under the name of Diaspora. If users feel as uncomfortable with Facebook's lack of trustworthiness as pundits claim, then Diaspora's growth will be fast.
But even if that happens Facebook isn't going away any time soon.
My wife continues to use Facebook furiously, constantly posting pictures of our adventures in her photo albums, checking out the dresses, shoes and handbags that her friends are selling in their photo albums, and chatting away with classmates, family and chums. Her friends list contains over 700 people even though she tries to purge it occasionally, and it continues to grow. Changing to another site would be difficult for her, if not impossible, and for her the potential privacy concerns just aren't worth changing her lifestyle.
That's exactly what Zuckerberg is counting on.