First There Was Facebook

20th September 2013

…which isn’t strictly true, of course. First there were Bulletin Boards and Internet Relay Chat, then SixDegrees.com and Friendster, MySpace and LinkedIn – but it was Facebook, launched in 2004, that defined social networking as we know it. Clare Finney asks whether Facebook’s unique ability to unite people with common interests and beliefs (from Christianity to loving Marmite), and allow people to find and stay in touch with friends and relatives wherever they are in the world, will ensure its survival in the face of some interesting opposition...

Last week, my ‘friend’ Becky went to the Walmart on West Menro street in Chicago, bought minced lamb, potatoes and aubergine, and made moussaka while wearing J Brand Jeans and a new GAP t-shirt. Why do I know this? Because, using a variety of specially-designed Facebook Apps, she shared it with me and the 907 other ‘friends’ she has online. Is there no end to this network’s involvement in our lives?

Well, yes, apparently, there is. According to YouGov, Facebook’s previously impenetrable popularity appears to be waning, with just under a quarter of UK web users who actively use Facebook telling pollsters that they are using the social network less than they did last year. In their stead has risen a series of sites aiming to offer a more meaningful form of social networking than ‘Clare checked in at Waitrose, Northwood’, and whose influence on our behaviour is already beginning to show.

My Space, a former casualty of Facebook, has recently been given a new lease of life thanks to its decision to focus on music integration and sharing. Pixwoo, a site for gamers that has already reached an advanced level of success in France, is just launching here, having been the subject of great anticipation among my gaming friends. More interesting still has been the blossoming of networks centred around health concerns like depression or deafness, where sufferers can find support and solace around a particular cause. Will Facebook fall in the face of this onslaught? Or will its unique ability to spread news and information, and allow people to find and stay in touch with friends and relatives wherever they are in the world ensure its survival?

Disappointingly, for those who have left Facebook or are trying to, for the time being the answer is ‘yes’. "The newer, exciting stuff is coming from startups, but Facebook is really going to be the glue at the middle," says Bill Lee, an entrepreneur who has started several Web companies. Dr Paola Tubaro, meanwhile, is a Senior Lecturer in Economic Sociology at Greenwich University, who has been at the forefront of social network analysis for years, and it is her experience that Facebook’s position is getting stronger – at least in parts of the world where the Internet is still an exciting new thing. “Globally Facebook is gaining ground, becoming a monopoly where before it was concentrated in the West,” she explains. Facebook might have reached saturation point here and in the States, but if it is the place to be virtually seen in the Middle East and across Asia then its immediate demise is unlikely. What is changing, however, is the way that we Westerners use it – and for how long.

As the Yougov poll demonstrates, people here are starting to spend less time on Facebook; 19% of active users anticipate even less activity on the site a year from now. Many cite boredom, or the social pressure that comes with being constantly tuned into other people’s lives. ‘Billy Loadsamates was at Percy Popular’s party with all your friends’ is a ‘news’ update that would wound even the most socially secure person, had they not been invited. Looking through Harriet Holiday’s endless photos of ‘Corfuuuu’ is at worst depressing, at best extraordinarily dull. Yet even as another poll appears affirming the majority’s belief in Facebook’s banality and boastfulness, only the minority leave. The rest, ever fearful on missing out on even more of Percy’s legendary parties, grimace and bear it: one eye on the Events page, the other on one of the many new networks promising a more meaningful way of interacting online.

These are many and varied. Although Dr Tubaro has not seen the decline in the number of Facebook users that I was half-expecting, half-wishing her to report, she is now seeing a rise in the number of people using other social networking tools. “People are using more and more specialised services for specific purposes, where they wouldn’t put everyone, just those who shared that same context” she says– hence Art is the Cure for artists, Pixwoo for gamers and the booklovers' site Good Reads. The trend is most likely parallel rather than counter to Facebook, she thinks – but it does mean that the site’s monopoly on our individual cyber worlds is diminishing. A site built for sharing things with everyone is, by its very nature, poorly adapted to indulging in more private interests, and as the online world becomes ever more insidious, people are starting to feel that need.

It’s into this gap that entrepreneurs are stepping: some with internet backgrounds and social networking nous; some with no more than a vague idea that if they want to interact differently online, others might, too. Good Reads, for example, began when Otis Chandler was scanning a friend’s bookshelf for good books to read. “I had loved reading as a child, had not had as much time for it when I was at college, and had set myself the personal goal to read more books,” he says. “Looking at my friend's bookshelf, I realised that when I want to know what books to read next, I would rather turn to a friend.” A website that enabled him and his friends to virtually browse each other’s bookshelves, and tell each other what they thought, would solve his problem – so he built it in his living room and together with his now-wife wrote the code.

Today, that site is Good Reads, and has over 19 million members. When I ask him if Facebook could rival his brainchild, Chandler is confident he’s offering a distinctive service, for all Facebook’s incomparable global reach. “When people come to Goodreads, it's because they are focused on books and reading. They want to find a great new book to read and to tell everyone what they thought of their book.”

Facebook planners might try to disagree. No doubt in part a reaction to sites such as Chandler’s, in March this year Facebook announced its plan to help users express what they find important to them and devised sections that allow you to have one place to add the music, films, TV programs and, of course, books you like. Yet to the serious book lover, the offering doesn’t even begin to compete. A book club, as anyone who has ever been to one will know, is where you talk books, just books. A club which mixes books with TV, films, and mindless updates on what one ate last night and who one’s dating is, well, Facebook. It might seem like a pedantic difference, but it can have far-reaching consequences when it comes to sites where the focus is not a hobby, but a serious disability or disease.

Take for example, Black Dog Tribe – another site which began with the wish of one person, and grew to serve the many. Ruby Wax, a comedian who suffered periodic and prolonged bouts of depression, said that she “wasted hours of everybody's time in therapy sessions trying to find out whether anyone had the same symptoms as everyone else and becoming extremely anxious when they didn't.” In 2011 she found a technologically-minded friend shared her feelings, and the Black Dog Tribe, a social networking platform for people affected by mental health conditions, took shape. Two years on, it has 25,000 members. They, their family members, friends, colleagues and carers all reap the 'therapeutic potential of the Internet’ the site claims to have harnessed and used. Conscious from the start that mental illnesses vary, it is intended to be a place in which like-minded people can find their own ‘tribe’ and share their experiences in a supportive online community through forums, blogs, daily news and health information. Once again, it is a online service that Facebook could never possibly provide. Large, public and amorphous, the very nature of Facebook’s success relies on members sharing stuff with as many people as possible, and as many as possible commenting on it. Yet when you’re suffering from a potentially life-threatening mental illness, comment and judgment is the last thing you need. Sharing an update with a few, sympathetic ears is one thing; sharing with all 784 of your Facebook ‘friends’ is quite another. The genius of Black Dog Tribe and similar sites is that they reconciled the fear of being judged with the need to share. Recently Dr Tubaro researched the use of social networking among people with eating disorders – a problem that, historically, would have been suffered alone. “It’s a relatively rare disorder, and hardly a conversation topic, so unless you went to hospital you didn’t really meet people who had the same thing,” she says. “However, we found today they have had clever strategy whereby they used Facebook as normal for their family, colleagues and friends – but that they would talk about their eating disorder on a dedicated forum where they could only connect with others on that network, who shared the disease.”

Keeping the eating disorder ‘community’ away from their other connections allows sufferers to remain private but still profit from the age-old wisdom that a problem shared is a problem halved. Paola calls this method of internet socialising strategic: “where Facebook is general purpose, and smaller networks are for specific parts,” she explains. Fast forward a few years, and she wouldn’t be surprised to find that a whole host of specialist networks have appeared reflecting the various dimensions of the lives we live. Not all will be as serious as Black Dog Tribe, of course. "They might be networks for jazz fans, or poets, or networks for professionals who keep their personal and working lives separate” she lists easily. Defero Law is a case in point. “It started off as a Facebook for lawyers, but it has actually developed into a content marketing platform for lawyers with an added social element: connect with people for what they say rather than who they are” says founder Richard Pettet. “The content is all law-based, it’s tightly moderated and it’s free from sales spam and the other 'annoyances' of broader social sites.” It could never replace Facebook, but given that the legal profession “hasn’t exactly embraced Facebook, it’s useful,” he continues. “That said, many of the site's members are recruited, so to speak, via Twitter and LinkedIn.”

At my suggestion that if we’re not careful, we’ll spend more time socialising online than off it,meanwhile, Dr Tubaro laughs. “I’m sure eventually people will alight on one general one, like Facebook, and two or three more specific sites,” she says. More worrying to her mind is the reluctance among Facebook and other such websites to share company information with her and her fellow researchers in social science.

Concerns about the average hours spent on Facebook, along with its depressing qualities, and the effect social networking in general has on society are valid, she says, but without data she cannot possibly forecast them. “Facebook itself has the data, but in academia and elsewhere we have very limited access. Sometimes we can guess, but the data we usually have is six months old and never first hand.” To an extent their secrecy is understandable – these are the figures upon which they base their success, and they’d be toxic in the hands of competitors – but, as Tubaro says, “it is precisely because these companies are so successful that their impact on society at large needs to be known.”

It's a valid point. “If we researchers had more access to data – with, of course, the civil safeguards preserving confidentially, anonymity and the like – it would produce results and analysis which could benefit the company, as well as society at large,” she continues. For some industries researchers can model present situations on past ones, but the internet has no precedent. “You can’t base its development on the car industry 50 years ago.”

Without research, the future of Facebook is cast in shadow. We know its effects of the site – the ‘envy, misery and loneliness’ found in one in three users by German scientists; the ‘Facebook fatigue’ found by a Reuters poll; its effect on productivity – but not whether there’s an online cure. With a site so ubiquitous that it is likened to a basic necessity ("It's one of those things you have to use," Dan Niles, chief investment officer of tech-focused hedge fund firm AlphaOne Capital Partners told Reuters earlier this summer. "You may not like the electricity company but I guarantee you you're still getting electricity”) it’s difficult to condone this rather hypocritical reluctance to share information. We may not always like what the Internet is doing to our society, but forewarned is forearmed.

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