“Facebook is the New Universe”

Back during the Dot Com bubble, you could hardly open a newspaper without running into an article talking about how the internet would radically change life as we know it. There was a lot of hyperbole involved, and in retrospect, life as we knew it didn’t so much radically change as slowly migrate into the virtual. Bookstores were replaced by virtual bookstores, physical newspapers by online editions, the guy who rants about salvation on a downtown corner by a guy who rants about salvation in a chat room. Or on Twitter.

Now, it seems, you can hardly access a news site without seeing an article discussing the implications of social networking (the new, virtual kind, that is). And while these articles tend to be a little more tempered, there’s still a healthy dose of “X is the new Y” involved. According to this guy, for example, “Facebook is the universe.” I think you’d have to go pretty far out on a philosophical limb to justify that statement; but I do think he’s onto something, in the following sense: social networking sites function a bit like self-contained universes.

The most successful companies of the Internet-ascendant era took existing products and placed them in a new context. Google, despite its multiple forays into areas as disparate as email-provider and wind-farmer, is still primarily a glorified and much more user-friendly phonebook; Amazon is a giant wholesaler/flea market with a slight emphasis on books; and Craigslist is a classifieds section. In other words, these companies provide very specific services. Those services are at the core of their business models, and while they may incorporate user-generated content, the heart of what they do is connecting users with things.*

In contrast, the social networking sites connect users with other users. In a strange way, it’s a return to the use of the Internet as a way to share information with other people – as though the rise of e-commerce was a temporary diversion into unabashed capitalism, a diversion now being corrected. It remains to be seen whether companies like Facebook and Twitter can successfully monetize this renewed interest in information sharing; in the meantime, however, it’s become clear that social networking has dragged everything good, bad, and ugly about social interaction into the virtual realm.

In other words, these companies aren’t radically changing anything. Instead, they’re making it a little easier, and a lot faster, for us to engage in the social behavior we’ve already developed. A recent New York Times article, examining the self-appointed guardians of “Twetiquette,” discusses behavior familiar to everyone: social blunders, and the resounding censure from people who object to such mistakes. And while the article posits that “provoking an irate reaction seems to be largely the point,” and that may be the case for the individuals themselves, from a larger point of view the behavior serves as a corrective mechanism, reining in – or at least, drawing attention to – the most flagrant transgressions of established norms.

And here’s where the idea of social-networking-as-a-universe begins to be compelling. The business model is built on the exchange of information between users, and this cyclical exchange of information leads to emergent phenomena. It’s unpredictable, it’s recursive, it’s self-referential. And in this sense, it’s like the universe. Maybe we haven’t succeeded in reinventing ourselves and our universe as much as we have managed to replicate them in a new medium.

*It’s a tricky and not-entirely-clear distinction, I admit. If we think of what Google does, for instance, it essentially connects users with information; but arguably, Facebook et al. are doing the exact same thing – only in this case, the information is about other users. So: tricky.

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1 comment for ““Facebook is the New Universe”

  1. May 27, 2010 at 11:19 am

    I love mentioning how social networking is, in a way, a return to the roots of the Internet 🙂 so is Twitter gopher and facebook telnet? Ha! Those references make me feel old

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