Facebook now has over 500 million users – a larger population than that of all but two nation states – as well as an upcoming movie. Perspectives on the site differ sharply, from those who see it as a successor to MySpace, and similarly doomed to eventual irrelevance, to those who see it as a key part of the future of the internet.
I think two things fundamentally distinguish Facebook from the rest of the web, and are important in combination. Firstly, there is the degree to which it is almost universally used. The great majority of my friends and co-workers have Facebook profiles. That creates powerful network effects. As with the telephone and other communication technologies, Facebook has become more useful and captivating as a larger and larger share of the population signs up. Secondly, there is the way in which the site imposes simplicity and standards. The internet is often a jumbled, confusing, technical place. By restricting the scope of what people can do, Facebook ensures that it will remain comprehensible, even to people without a great deal of technical knowledge.
Maybe the biggest thing Facebook has done is increased the level of social transparency in society. It has made the high school and college reunion largely irrelevant, since it is now easy to check what any particular former classmate is up to. Indeed, you probably don’t need to do any active research: their latest travel, relationship changes, photos, employment decisions, and more are likely to be displayed to you automatically if you sign in often enough. Suddenly, ambiguous romantic situations are perceptible to anyone who cares to investigate, and a much wider swathe of personal information has become readily accessible to future employers, co-workers, romantic partners, and friends.
Before the internet really emerged, I think a lot of people imagined that it would end up being much like Facebook – a centralized location for interpersonal interaction, in which physical location is not important. Clearly, the wider internet has developed to play many other roles, such as serving as a mechanism to gain access to specialized and niche products and information. That said, it does seem like Facebook is now a core part of what the internet does, taken all in all, and that the economic and social consequences of that could be significant.