So, are you on Facebook?

12 Jul 2010

This post is entirely inspired by David Ascher’s talk on “Messaging with Mozilla Values” at the Mozilla summit, and is also a result of me deciding not to simply let blog posts sit as drafts forever (looks like I haven’t made a post in a while!)

It’s been a couple of months since I deleted my facebook account. It wasn’t an impulse decision, and I had been mulling over it for a while before actually going through with it. I don’t really miss it, which I suppose, is a good thing. As a technology enthusiast however, I do want to keep up with what the biggest social network in the world is up to. Create an alias you say? While signing up for one, I noticed that the form very strongly notes that one is to use their “real name only”. Interesting. I’m just going to wait and see if they decide that I am a fake person.

All that is well and good, but my conversations with new and interesting young people I meet almost always ends with “are you on facebook?”. My response is usually met with either mild surprise or a sliver of disappointment. I quickly explain that it doesn’t mean they can’t get in touch with me but that leads to a look that I’ve come to interpret as “yeah right”, also known as “ugh, email”. Which explains why my personal inbox only contains messages from my mom, the British lottery council and my very wealthy friends in Nigeria.

This leads us to the burning question of why “standard” messaging protocols like SMTP have failed (or rather failed to evolve) to capture the interest of this generation. As Chris Beard very succinctly put, if you had said we’d be using a single Internet based service to communicate with each other in the 90s we’d have thought you were crazy, simply because we were just finished with the nightmare that was AOL. Yet, only a couple of decades later it seems we’re at a full circle.

Hypothetically speaking, if Google had decided that Gmail could only be used to send messages to other Gmail users, would it have gained as much traction as it did? Yet, millions of Facebook users seem to miss the absurdity in the fact that they can’t use the service to talk to anybody who is not a member of the network. If users fail to recognize this simple drawback, it must mean that playing the ‘privacy’ trumpet or the ‘centralized control’ horn is just wasted effort.

What can we as computer scientists do about the situation (or does the situation even need our attention)? David very rightly points out that the last thing on our minds should be to ask users to stop doing things they absolutely love. I enjoyed facebook. A lot. There is a reason (actually several) for why the service is so popular. It certainly seems to me that understanding the basics of why such a service is a grand success is an interesting exercise in itself.

So, are you on facebook? What do you love about it? What do you think could be better? Do you see initiatives like diaspora succeeding?