Facebook's "purpose"

October 28, 2010

I agree with a lot of Cathleen Falsani's piece
on The Social Network, in which she
praises Facebook's capacity for reconnecting real-world friends and reinforcing
existing community. But she loses me when she suggests this is the site's purpose. I think it's difficult to
define this, and I'm not sure how much it matters.

If you, like I, were a recent college grad in 2003--the last
year of the pre-Facebook era--there's a fair chance you have a long-dormant
Friendster account. Friendster was created
specifically as a dating site, but a lot of people used it exclusively to crack
each other up with silly comments and fake profiles of various nonhuman
entities. The guy who built the site wasn't
, but there wasn't a whole lot he could do about it.

Facebook's long since taken over Friendster's dominance (in the
, anyway), and I use it for all sorts of productive things I never
imagined doing via Friendster: promoting blog posts, networking with
colleagues, finding e-mail addresses and name spellings for people on my
wedding invitation list. Of course, all these things were theoretically possible on Friendster, too--and none of them
was intended by Facebook's creators.
Social media's function has at least as much to do with organic trends among
users as with technological capacity or official purpose. (The best
illustration of this is Twitter.)
I think Falsani overshoots here:

The idea of Facebook isn't to go
trolling for new friends, but to reconnect with people we already have a
relationship with in some way.

Rather than functioning as a
hollow, mechanical replacement for genuine friendship, it is designed to
augment and expand pre-existing relationships.

Actually, Facebook was designed as an online version of the
facebooks published by colleges to help students put names with faces (in
practice, especially the most attractive faces--a point that highlights how
quickly intention and usage can diverge). Trolling for new friends was the
whole point, and the only pre-existing relationship required was a shared .edu
e-mail domain. (I first heard of Facebook when a friend's little brother
mentioned that he went to college with my little sister--he'd noticed her in
class and looked her up later on Facebook. "On what?" I asked. He explained, a
bit sheepishly.)

Scoping out cute classmates is no longer Facebook's only
function--again, these things change organically over time. Now the site's used
to connect people, real-life friends and otherwise, in all sorts of ways.
Falsani's right to highlight the irony between this general theme of connection
and The Social Network's depiction
(accurate or not)
of Mark Zuckerberg as a guy who invented Facebook only to see his friend count
drop from one to zero.

But Zuckerberg didn't create Facebook for anything as
high-minded as kindling community among bona fide friends. The fact that this
is one common use of it now only emphasizes the limited connection between what
a site's built to do and what it does.

See also Adam Copeland's
The Social Network.