Things Fall Apart
The ghosts of vanished giants haunt social networking. So many formerly great Internet companies are struggling or dead. Consider CompuServe, AOL, Netscape, Napster–even Yahoo. Lycos, a search engine that was sold to Terra Networks in 2000 for $12.5 billion, was sold to a Korean firm for $95 million four years later.
What CompuServe and many of the others have in common is that they were portals: gateways to the Web. Facebook wants to be something similar: more than just a useful and fun social tool but the first page people open on the Web, and the platform they use for all their other communication on the Internet.
As would-be portals, however, social-networking sites are vulnerable to one of the problems that brought down those earlier Internet businesses. The portals were “walled gardens” where inexperienced Internet users congregated for a time but where they became restless at last–leaving for the wider, wilder Web. Facebook and MySpace understand this and are now struggling to achieve an appropriate balance between openness and control.
They’re also struggling with faddishness. Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, studies social networking as a cultural phenomenon. She describes online hot spots as though they were popular pubs. “It’s supercool when all of your friends go there,” she says. “Then all sorts of other people come in. Even if the pub doesn’t start feeling physically crowded, it starts feeling socially crowded when your ex is at the other end of the bar talking to some creep who brought his fellow gang members. How long until you say, ‘Enough–I’m outta here’?”
Several attendees at EconSM took the same flight home, and anyone paying attention on that red-eye from Los Angeles to New York got a lesson on social networking’s place in modern life.
Just before the plane began its descent, a 28-year-old woman named Erin fainted on the way to the bathroom. She was possibly overtired, or maybe weirded out by the inhumane crush of economy class. Even she didn’t really know what happened. By the time we were on the runway, she had regained her senses. Her first question to the flight attendant was, “Did anyone get my phone?”
As soon as the attendant handed her her iPhone, she opened it up and went right to her Facebook account. She wasn’t looking for ads and she wouldn’t have noticed one, unless it annoyed her by getting in the way. She wanted to reach her friends, and that was all.
Bryant Urstadt has written for Rolling Stone and Harper’s.