February 23, 2009

Facebook's Success Makes It the Social Media Prism and Translator

Facebook's impressive growth, and its gradual passing of MySpace in virtually every aspect, has brought the network to the point where it is universally recognized as the largest, most active, social site on the Web. This of course means that even outside our little bubble of Silicon Valley, our family members and less tech-obsessed friends might be using it - much more than they are the "edge" applications we might also be using. And as Facebook has evolved, adding more lifestream-oriented features, I've come to realize that it is becoming the standard by which practically all social media sites are compared, and even explained.

Case in point - over the weekend my wife, the twins and I, went to see my parents for a quick two-day visit. During a rare tech respite, I opened up the laptop and was blazing through my Google Reader feeds. My dad, curious, leaned over and said, "Is this your Twitter?", making a valiant attempt to guess at whatever oddity I was using. I said, no, that I was using Google Reader, which let me read new stories from hundreds of sites at once.

Then, hoping to explain Twitter, I referred him to the Facebook status. I said using Twitter, for many people, was like updating your Facebook status throughout the day, and choosing to see updates from others.

Extending the message to aggregation sites or lifestreaming services, such as FriendFeed, again, I find myself using Facebook as the starting point. I can refer to Facebook's news feed, and how it pulls in links and shares from other sites, allowing you to make comments or show you like something.

At this point, with 175 million users reported on the site, Facebook represents a significant chunk of online activity. When I threatened to "borrow" my younger sister's iPhone to ostensibly update her Facebook status on her behalf, you would think I was threatening to kill her future first-born. The simple status update on the network, to her, represents who she is to her friends and her family, and it likely does for many others out there - even if they aren't in their 20s, fresh out of college, as she is. As she told me this evening, behind texting, e-mail and the phone, she uses her iPhone for Facebook. She doesn't buy a lot of applications or play games, but she does Facebook, constantly.

Facebook, at this point, is almost as well known as AOL once was. And as we once would explain the World Wide Web and e-mail through the context of AOL, we are once again using an extremely popular site that isn't always best of breed as the standard-bearer for what other social sites are today. Does that mean Facebook does better status updates than Twitter? Probably not. Does that mean Facebook can do feeds and friends better than FriendFeed? Probably not. But then again, AOL wasn't exactly best of breed either, and for years, it ruled the world.

If we expect these odd tools that we geeks and early adopters have been pounding the table on to take hold, we just may have to speak the language that the masses know. Today, that language flows through Facebook. This might mean that after the dust clears, and nine out of ten startups are gone, that only Facebook will be standing. And just maybe that's what Zuckerberg and team are hoping.