In 2004, a college student and his friends launched a simple website with a simple goal: to connect the students at his university on the internet. Six years and 500 million users later, Facebook is so powerful and relevant a social force that founder Mark Zuckerberg was named Time's Person of the Year for 2010.
Facebook is just one of many social networking services that have changed the way we interact and communicate with the world around us. LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare and yes, even MySpace will continue to influence the way we understand human relationships, for better or worse. Bearing that in mind, here are just a few of the ways social networking has helped and hindered the world's relationships.
The Dating Game
On my own college campus, Facebook may as well have been called HookupBook. The service was used almost exclusively for casual dating to the point it was rumored that the upper class men were digging through incoming classes to find their next 'target.' As sinister as that sounds, the truth is that social networking is an invaluable tool for the bachelor. You can screen potential dates (if the word 'cats' appear under her interests without the word 'lol' or 'kicking' before it, take a pass), locate like-minded ladies, and easily catch up with old flames for a late night rendezvous (act like you haven't done it). Social networking has made it easy to keep up with the opposite sex on a casual level that doesn't require a lot of work.
The flipside, of course, is that it's incredibly easy for those scary ex-girlfriends, like the one who sent me a ripped up picture of myself on my birthday years after we had broken up, to find you. Suddenly the ease of accessing personal information doesn't seem so appealing. You start feeling like you're being watched at the gym and that restaurant you checked into on Foursquare. Snarky comments start to appear under your posts on your friends' walls. You're getting vaguely homicidal tweets directed to your Twitter feed. Sleeping without a light on starts to feel like tempting fate. Yeah, sometimes connected isn't so great.
One of the most profound ways social media has changed our lives is the instant access to breaking news. Several of my friends have done away with their RSS feeds in favor of Twitter feeds and Facebook streams. Social networking has given us a number of ways to connect with the news in which we're most interested and to stay involved in the conversation. I first heard about Michael Jackson's death on Twitter, nearly an hour before it showed up on the TV at the bar I was in when the news broke. If you aren't into celebrity gossip, well, follow smarter people than I do. There is a truckload of information available about Julian Assange and Wikileaks if you friend the right people. The important thing is to balance your stream. If you're only following Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and anyone attached to them via a retweet button, you're well on your way to becoming a sociopath.
The downside of our immediate access to relevant news is that anyone can get access to whatever news they want. Suddenly your friends are experts on topics they know nothing about because they've read three, 140-character tweets. The guy next to you in the bar chimes in on your conversation about Assange with the 'highly relevant and revelatory quote I found on a friend's Facebook wall (which was probably misquoted) and just had to share.' As quick as the information comes in it gets filtered and modified by millions of people, posted and reposted again and again. As fast as news can spread it can change, and suddenly social media seems more like a game of telephone on a global scale than an important tool for sharing information.
The Power of the Individual
By now, there are so many stories about musicians and artists being discovered on YouTube that you can take your favorite and insert it here. YouTube and other social networking services have given individuals a venue for showcasing their talents and a feedback loop for talent scouts. "S#@^ My Dad Says"? Started as a Twitter account. Stuff White People Like? That was a blog. It's a hard thing for a promoter to ignore 30 million views of anything, even if its a cat farting. Get that cat a contract, and may he fart from sea to shining sea for a $12 admission fee. Seriously, though, social networking has done great things for individuals, like this Ohio man who was homeless until a news station discovered he had a golden radio voice. The Cleveland Cavaliers offered to pay a house mortgage for him along with full-time voiceover work with the franchise and Quicken Loans. Hell, Facbeook itself is an inspiring story of individual success. Zuckerberg was just a kid when he started Facebook. Now he's the founder of one of the most valuable tech companies in the world, he's Time's Person of the Year, and there's a movie that tells the Facebook origin story, all thanks to a simple desire to connect people across the internet.
Power corrupts, though, and for every Zuckerberg or golden-voiced radio personality, there's a Kanye West or a Perez Hilton. These human wrecking balls see the power of social networking, the venue for their voice, and go wild, wheedling their way into our lives with inane babble and celebrity gossip. The truth is, anyone with a blog or a Twitter account and an penchant for causing or celebrating human suffering can become a serious influence in whatever realm they choose, be it fashion, sports, news, music, whatever.
Keeping up with old friends
More than anything else, people use social networking to keep up with old friends. I have no idea how I remembered birthdays before Facebook (actually, I do know – I didn't remember), and when my good friend and his wife have a baby four hundred miles away, I love that I can get online and see that little alien with the click of a button. I'll know when my friend drops his fourth phone of the year into yet another toilet, and when my cousin gets a new job. I'll know when my friends will all be back in Ohio so we can plan to get together.
Of course, I also know when that random person I can't seem to remove from my news feed has to go to the bathroom. I know what people are eating (both from images and text – people, please stop taking pictures of your food), what they're wearing, how bored they are, how sooooo bored they are, and on and on and on. It's so easy to share information that people tend to overshare information, and the clutter is almost unbearable. Earlier this year I went through and deleted roughly 70 percent of the people on my various media streams, just to free up some headspace, and I still feel like I have too much going on. Truth be told, I still forget birthdays, but now people know that I forgot them. There isn't a way for me to post on a friend's wall a day ago.
It's been six years since Facebook. Six years since we realized that our lives would be different, our children would be different, the way we understand the internet will be different. Six years on the web is like six lifetimes, though, and the next great social network is probably already an itch in the back of some kid's mind. Six years from now we may well be looking back, wondering what happened to Facebook instead of MySpace, and looking to the kid with the next great idea to tell us what the future holds.