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home : insight & opinion : signs of life May 24, 2016

10/28/2013 11:11:00 AM
Facebook a fusion of general store, sports bar
I realized recently that I've been on Facebook nearly half of its life. So while that doesn't make me an early adopter, it does make me something of a veteran, given the half-lives of online phenomena. And it got me thinking about where and how it fits into my own life - and, of course, What It All Means.

Increasingly, people ask me questions about how to use the service, as if being a veteran also makes me an expert. But something else I realized recently is that no one can be an expert with regard to something like Facebook, not an expert in the traditional sense, anyway.

Online entities - especially those as user-driven as Facebook - are so fluid and changeable that becoming an expert in them would be like trying to nail pies to the wall. It's said the internet has provided a way for everyone to know everything, anyway, so maybe we're even beyond the day when "expert" has much meaning at all.

But I suppose I do feel more at home in social media, at least this large-diameter branch of it, than a lot of people. And that's something I never expected.

I was an extremely reluctant Facebook user, dragged into it by a couple of friends in particular. The fact that neither struck me as the kind of person who would use social media - no more than I knew about social media in 2008 - was intriguing in itself, and probably made me more likely to take the plunge than if I'd been urged by a friend who was both very social and tech-savvy.

Another thing that pushed me over the edge - as I expect is true for many - is that my "lifetime" friends, those who would form the core of my Facebook galaxy - are so widely dispersed. Social media as we know it wouldn't have worked when communities and families were tight-knit and local, when churches and clubs and schools were how people gathered and shared. "Social media" was the old general store.

But these days, I suspect online social networking has been a godsend, even to those who wouldn't admit it, to those who've made a few moves in their lives and suddenly found themselves in a new place, knowing no one, in a place where the traditional forms of community either no longer existed or were ossified and unwelcoming.

Maybe that's why it's said - often with a note of surprise - that Facebook users skew older, to Gen-Xers and early Boomers, more than to kids and millennials. Maybe it's been especially attractive to those who grew up when those local connections were still vibrant, or at least when they still had enough life left in them to be remembered fondly.

I was hooked, anyway, when Facebook reconnected me with a couple of good friends with whom I'd completely lost touch for nearly 30 years. I'm convinced those reconnections wouldn't have happened any other way - that if it hadn't been for Facebook, or something like it, I would have ended my life without those friends back in the fold. Again, this kind of experience is something I expect is true for many.

And the impact of that kind of experience may also be something Facebook's developers didn't count on. While the service is clearly built on the desire for people to connect in various ways, I'm guessing Zuckerberg and company were looking more at the number and complexity of the connections, rather than their poignancy and potential significance in peoples' lives.

But while the service's success is rooted in its ability to translate human relationship into likes, shares and other kinds of profit-producing clicks, it's still dealing, in fact, with human relationship - in all of its power and non-profit, but priceless, variety.

I suppose that's one reason its users complain so often and loudly about its for-profit aspect. But Facebook making money off of its users is no different from the rest of our lives lived as consumers, in a consumer society.

That is to say, someone, somewhere, is making money off of us in nearly every waking moment. Television wants our eyeballs, websites want our clicks, newspapers want subscribers, Wal-Mart forces us to navigate from one corner of the store to the other on every visit so as to expose us to the largest number of "opportunities" possible.

Even the social-networking site I often think Facebook most resembles - a sports bar - is a consumer machine: Salty food gets people to buy beer, big-screen TVs keep people eating and drinking as long as possible. And the cash register rings.

And while money is indeed being made off of us, as Facebook users, we do well to remember that it's essentially free. What would you have paid for software, back in the late '90s or even early '00s, that claimed to do what Facebook does? Thought so.

Ultimately, there'll be something else, a successor. There always is. But it's at least shown how much we still need and thrive on connection. Maybe, if there is still such a thing as a lasting contribution to society in these nailing-a-pie-to-the-wall days, that's Facebook's.

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