problems that Facebook solves

I’m writing my way through my thoughts about FB…I have always been very ambivalent about it. I have a distaste for and suspicion about “walled gardens” on the internet in general, and nothing that’s happened over the last year or so has done anything to disabuse me of that prejudice.

On the other hand, it’s popular for a reason, and I don’t think that’s just about network effects. I’ve been out here on the web producing content for a while now — over a decade! — and so rather than just go “ew!” and run away, I’m trying to think about the problems that FB solves for many people. In particular, the problems that aren’t currently (well-)solved anywhere else. This is what I’ve got so far:

Tracking conversation: posting information is easy (relatively speaking), and tracking other people’s individual posts is similarly simple (Atom/RSS FTW!). But keeping track of conversations: discussion threads, comments, back & forth exchanges — that’s a more complicated problem across any sort of distributed network. (I’m partial to subscribing to comments by email when that’s an option, oddly enough.) By trying to be all things to all people, FB negates that. You don’t have to “track”; it’s all just there.

Remembering birthdays: events are pretty simple; everybody’s got their own calendar system, and there’s lots of ways to send invitations. Birthdays, on the other hand, are sort of a passive-aggressive event. You (generally) want your friends to know it’s your birthday, but you don’t want to be pushy — or you don’t want to invite everyone you know to whatever celebration you might be having. Personally, I’m finding it nice to know when acquaintances, relatives, and long-lost friends have birthdays. For my really close friends/family, I know their birthdays and have them in my calendar (theoretically). But little reminders of more distance relationships are a pleasant way to be more sociable.

Finding people: I think initially the appeal of finding people — and being findable — through FB is that it didn’t feel like you were waving a sign to the whole internet. There was the possibility of being semi-findable, putting out a sliver of one’s self to be found either within FB or out on the big scary internets, and having control over which pieces were presented. Plus, with FB you don’t have to produce a lot of content to be findable…vs Google, where you’re “fighting” with any famous — or just more verbose — people with similar names.

Wasting time with friends: ok, I hate FB games with the burning fire of 1000 suns. I’m not much for quizzes either. but goofing off is an important part of life, goofing off with friends even more so. And when all your friends are on the internets, and everybody’s at their dumb job 😉 then goofing off in a light-weight way on the internet with your friends is a very good thing.

So the question is (from my POV): how does one recreate these things on the open web? Which things really honestly require something new (ala Diaspora) and which can be (easily) jerry-rigged with existing stuff? How can they be made easier? Ok, so that was three questions. I don’t think I have the answers yet…I’d be very curious to hear anybody else’s ideas.

One Reply to “problems that Facebook solves”

  1. I think your analysis of what facebook is good for is spot on. Although I think I would also add “connect with people that won’t connect via any other means”.

    Quite a few members of my close friends/family circle are borderline luddites, recluses, and shy. So they don’t have twitter or blogs. They will read stuff I post wherever, but they won’t comment unless it’s somewhere that isn’t quite so public. Facebook served as a good place for those shy people to talk to me.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been finding that as my friends list grows on Facebook, their comments are fewer. And the more friends they get, the fewer posts they do. And now with the privacy concerns it’s even worse.

    I think for those people any system that is easy, and you can very much control how much you share… That would be good. I think the ability to control who sees a comment would be even better. Many of my friends would like to comment on my posts but have it ONLY visible to me, which you can do with messages, but then it isn’t tracked in the flow of the conversation.

    Honestly I think something kind of like how google wave works would be kind of cool. Except for the fact that google wave takes a phd to understand.

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