Arnold Kling  

Facebook Generation

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I write,


Despite Young Dave's assessment, I think it is possible that Facebook will make the leap from its predominantly young demographic to mainstream, grown-up usage. If it does so, the transition will happen soon and will not take long.

The fundamental issue is this: a good network includes everybody you would want to contact. However, a network that has literally everybody has too many people abusing their power to get your attention.

Scott Gilbertson writes


When entering data into Facebook, you're sending it on a one-way trip. Want to show somebody a video or a picture you posted to your profile? Unless they also have an account, they can't see it. Your pictures, videos and everything else is stranded in a walled garden, cut off from the rest of the web.

Like locked cell phones and copy-protected music, Facebook is on the wrong side of the open-network debate. Facebook is a sealed bubble.


I'm not so sure that Facebook is on the wrong side.

This has been a longstanding controversy. In the early 1990's, many Internet veterans regretted the fact that the Net was getting easier to use. In the days before Windows 95 and AOL, the technical competence required to get on the Net was an entry barrier that kept out the riff-raff.

Facebook began as a site that was exclusively for people with college email addresses. Many young people, including my daughters as well as my friend's son--who I call Young Dave--think of age as an important barrier to entry relative to Facebook. For them, imagining people my age using Facebook would be like a teenager thinking of her parents having sex.

My hypothesis is that Facebook is to the Internet as Craigslist is to eBay. That is, it is a service that is better known to the elite than to the masses. This improves its character in a number of subtle ways.

I see Facebook as an experiment in "filtered connections" in social networking. I think that there is a very large latent demand for such connections, and this latent demand is as strong among adults as among young people. For example, in the essay I suggest that filtered connections would help me implement a concept I am working on called Peripatetics.

I think that there are many places where one could find a dozen people interested in the sort of educational experience I sketch out. However, the cost of identifying those people is quite high. Eventually, Facebook or one of its descendants will lower that cost.

Related links:

Fogeys Flock to Facebook

Facebook, Social Capitalists, and Open Networks


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CATEGORIES: Business Economics



COMMENTS (3 to date)

I think Scott is on the wrong track entirely. I have about twelve service-provided blogs, all of which contain a single post pointing at my "real" blog, because I can't comment on someone else's post without registering. Registration on a service like this is a minor nuisance, and sometimes I preemptively register when I know someone who's on the service.

So the bubble isn't really sealed. It's just got a set of three steps in front of the open door. While you do, of course, have to walk up the steps to get through the door... nobody is really complaining about it. Services like this are not 100% open to 100% of the world 100% of the time, but I think you have to drop the percentages a lot more than Facebook and its ilk do before you can call the system closed.

Gerald Kanapathy writes:

First, regarding the "walled garden": You can in fact share uploaded Facebook photos. For example, here's a small gallery of mine. I do take your point that most other parts of your Facebook profile can not be made open to the public, but most of are minor (e.g. employment history) and probably should be secured (e.g. contact information) or contain too much information that is contributed by other people. Let's not forget that it's completely free and open to anyone to get a Facebook membership (and I think it's misleading to call it a "membership" rather than just a "login"). It seems clear to me that the reason this is required for access to most of the rest of the rather more personal items in your profile is mostly so that the owner of the information can protect the information. I would say the analogy is less a "walled garden" than maybe a privately-owned publicly-accessible shopping mall in terms of security and privacy. I would also add that the important difference between Facebook and AOL's walls is that AOL, unlike Yahoo and the rest of the internet, limited who could create content and what content could be created. (Okay, the $25/month mattered too.) Not so Facebook. Since everyone who uses Facebook certainly has the option of (just as easily, or even more easily) putting the same content in a public place on the Internet, it seems to me that what they're providing is control for the users, not limitations on the consumers.

Next, regarding the binary friends problem: Facebook does encourage you to specify how you know someone. There are currently 14 non-mutually-exclusion ways to describe your relationship with someone (e.g., "went to school with", "is in my family", "know thru another person") and most of those allow further details to be specified (e.g. "at University X from 199x to 200x", "my cousin", etc.). I can easily get a list of "coworkers", "family", "people I know through others". If this information is important enough and easy enough for users to record, it's certainly easy for Facebook to add more classifications and filters. Right now, their "friends feed" also allows you to increase the priority of some people, and decrease the priority of others for getting updates. It seems to me that this feature could also be fairly easily combined with the friend list filtering. That would be exactly what you mentioned in your TCS article. It seems to be an obvious direction to take their privacy and network relationship controls and features. I wonder if they will do anything with this.

My sense is that Facebook is extremely aware and conscientious about the ability to control who can see what about you, and from what I can tell, this concern is deep in their DNA and seems to affect everything they do. It probably gets that from its origins as a student directory at elite colleges. Perhaps this is one of the subtle improvements you mention.

Brian Cook writes:

In addition, you can prioritize certain types of information or not. For example, I got tired of being notified whenever a business acquaintance of mine (from across the Atlantic) updated the "status" portion of her facebook profile. So I deprioritized news from her profile and deprioritized status updates in general, as they don't particularly interest me.

It's not a bad system, and is relatively easy to approach. Glenn Reynolds would certainly be a fan because it's analog--slider bars like you'd find on an old stereo receiver or mixing table.

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