Social networks: How Facebook changed the Internet

It's been a busy few months for Facebook: a government investigation, another in a seemingly endless series of changes to the site's privacy controls, a New Yorker profile of its famously publicity-shy founder and the upcoming release of The Social Network, a thoroughly unauthorized account of its early days. With all of the publicity and controversy around Facebook – not to mention its still-growing popularity – it's almost impossible to remember what online life was like before it. In fact, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that those who began using the Internet after the introduction of Facebook and its competitors do so in a way that is fundamentally different from older users.

The networks that make up the Internet have always been social ones, of course. Although it was first designed to allow scientists to collaborate more easily, e-mail systems and message boards were among the first features of what we might call the “proto-Internet.” Moreover, the first of these to be widely used outside of the academic community -- bulletin board systems and early online services such as Compuserve – were entirely focused on socialization, and the culture that developed in these was largely carried over to the first widely-available “true” Internet service, Usenet, and from there to the early days of the World Wide Web. (Usenet still exists, though it is maintained by Google essentially as a public service.)

The difference between those online environments and social networks such as Facebook – and, the secret to Facebook's success -- is the nature of the socialization in each. The older environments were generally organized into forums, based on a particular interest, and often organized and divided hierarchically. If you wanted to talk about Star Trek on Usenet, for instance, you would begin at the top-level directory Rec (for “recreation”), then navigate to the subdirectory Arts (to distinguish from other recreational activities such as camping, cooking, and so on), then TV and then Startrek and possibly to a further subdirectory such as Original or NextGeneration.

Two things are notable about this kind of organization: first, it was atomizing, making the Internet basically a place to find like-minded people. If you were interested in talking about Star Trek, you could go to the above group; if you were interested in Szechuan cooking, you could go to Rec.Cooking.Chinese.Szechuan; if you were a fan of Leonard Cohen you could go to Alt.Fan.Leonard-Cohen. Second, it was exclusionary; because of that hierarchical structure (which strongly resembled the commands used in early computer programs and operating systems) it was very difficult to navigate unless you had both a guide and an interest in computers.

Compare that to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. To begin with, the connections are based primarily on acquaintance, with “Friend” and “Fan” being the main forms of contact. (Facebook does include groups based on mutual interest, but these are of relatively little importance and membership in them is, increasingly, more a way to express an opinion or show support for a cause than to socialize.) As well, social networks have no “neutral ground”; unlike Usenet, where users met in a common space, connections in Facebook are direct – in order to communicate with someone else you have to provide them with access to your profile. Social networks are also basically non-hierarchical with, in general, a friend is a friend is a friend (the ranking of “top” friends was one feature of MySpace that Facebook did not copy.) Compared to Usenet groups they are also much easier to access and navigate -- and indeed have become more so, as the heavy emphasis on customization found in MySpace gave way to the one-size-fits-all model of Facebook.

The biggest difference, though, is in what is being communicated. As noted above, early forms of online communication were nearly all focused on talking about something, be it Star Trek or Szechuan cooking or Leonard Cohen, and online communities would censure “off-topic” posts. On social networks, though, it's the communication that is the point, not the content; who you are talking to is more important than what you are saying. If we imagine the Internet as being like a high school, being on Usenet is like attending a chess club meeting, while being on Facebook is like hanging out in the student lounge.

These differences go a long way towards explaining how young people use the Internet differently from adults. Most adults, whether they know it or not, think of the Internet in what are essentially Usenet terms: as a collection of destinations to which you might go based on what you want to do. Adults even treat social networks this way: if asked, most adults on Facebook would say they use it for a particular purpose – to network professionally, to keep in touch with friends and family, to share photos, and so on. The fact that it can serve these purposes is part of Facebook's success, of course, but it's almost incidental to how young people use it. For them it, along with the other communications services and devices they use (texting, instant messaging, etc.) serves primarily to provide a constant stream of chatter, letting them feel “plugged in.” This is why so much of what teens say online can seem inane to adults; it is inane, in exactly the same way as nearly all communication. It's a bit like the difference in how phones were used between people who grew up with early, expensive, unreliable phone service and those for whom it was reliable and cheap: the former would use the phone like a telegraph, talking carefully and only saying the minimum that needed to be said, while the latter used it as a direct substitute for (or supplement to) face-to-face communication.

The other important difference between the two patterns of Internet use is that, broadly speaking, the Usenet model is male – impersonal and based largely on common interest – while the Facebook model is female, being more heavily based on the nature and practice of communication than its content. This, too, goes a long way towards explaining the popularity of Facebook and its rivals, but it also helps to explain broader changes in Internet culture. While Usenet had its share of antisocial behaviour, for instance, it was basically limited to “trolling” (making controversial or insulting statements in hopes of getting a rise from other people). This behaviour was easy enough to control due to the “killfile,” which allowed users to block messages from other users as they chose while still participating in online discussions. As well, Usenet and similar forums had an array of tools used to prevent bad behaviour; a large number of the abbreviations then in common use were ways of minimising the risk of direct conflict, such as AFAIK (As Far As I Know), IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) and YMMV(Your Mileage May Vary.)

Facebook, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to female forms of aggression which rely heavily on gossip and ostracism. Because they are part of a social network, someone may be targeted by a bully without initially being aware of it; that network, too, is the reason why targets are reluctant to block contact from bullies – blocking the bully often means asking common contacts to choose sides and risks isolating the target entirely. Moreover, staying off of Facebook is not the same as staying out of Usenet because it is such an important part of most teens' social lives (indeed, research has shown that many teens are reluctant to report cyberbullying because they are afraid their parents will cut off their Internet access – a cure that is, for them, worse than the disease.) This may also partially explain why youth accept Friend requests from people whom they would not normally define as friends: among girls not talking to someone is a form of aggression, and refusing a Friend request may be taken the same way. It may also account for youths' often unwarranted confidence online: while most youth are realistic in appraising the limits of their computer skills, they may define what they do online as a primarily social activity – something teenage girls feel perfectly well-equipped to handle.

According to early reviews, The Social Network depicts founder Mark Zuckerberg as a socially awkward person mostly focused on his work and interests, especially computer programming – essentially the archetypal Usenet user. It seems likely, though, that he'll be remembered him as the one who consigned that way of using the Internet to the dustbin of history.


For more about Facebook and its effects on society read the blogs Public or Private? Facebook and the Stephanie Rengel Case and What is Public Space Online?


Privacy and Internet Life, a lesson for Grades 7 to 8 which teaches students how to protect their personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, and The Privacy Dilemma, a lesson for Grades 9 to 12 which asks students to consider and discuss the trade-offs we all make on a daily basis between maintaining our privacy and gaining access to information services. Promoting Ethical Behaviour Online – Our Values and Ethics helps students learn about online privacy and ethical behaviour by exploring their digital footprints to better understand that our online interactions may not be as anonymous as we think they are.