Digging into Facebook


There are nearly 14,000 Maltese who have a Facebook account. Five weeks ago, when I started thinking about this snippet, there were 8,000.

Facebook is the Internet site of 2007. In October, Microsoft spent $240 million for a 1.6% equity stake, valuing the company at a whopping $15 billion. With 34.5 billion page views in September, according to Media Metrix, Facebook is now the fourth most highly trafficked Web property worldwide. Together, with the iPhone, Facebook was the Internet story of the year.

What nobody can say for sure is whether Facebook will be as popular in 2008. Such is the fickle nature of social networking sites that the next big thing may be round the corner: Google recently announced its Open Social network.

I wanted to understand why the Maltese are taking to Facebook in their droves, when they can pick a phone and meet a mate in 30 minutes for a drink and a chat. And why people keep sharing the most mundane and (sometimes) intimate details of their lives with online ‘friends’.

So I asked six questions to 13 friends within my Facebook network. I spread the mix, to make sure there was nothing much in common (except that I knew them all). 12 Maltese, 1 Canadian in Gozo, from all walks of life: sales & marketing executives to businessmen, students, a technologist and a published poet. This is some of the chatter that came back:

Joining Facebook tends to be a collective of peer pressure, curiosity, professional obligation and boredom. Facebook helps people rediscover old friends and keep tabs on those living overseas. Or those anywhere else with an Internet connection and time on their hands.

Facebook is an addiction, a guilt trip, a time-waster, a laugh, a glorified Hi5 for adults. We find ourselves trapped in our need to communicate: we check our email continuously; we get mad if we forget our mobile; and, now, there’s Facebook. Many use it like SMS or Twitter, with fingers rattling on a keyboard to keep up with hundreds of ‘friends’ from all walks of life. It’s an incredibly powerful virus which motivates people to infect their friends and colleagues.

Voyeurism and narcissism appear to be key drivers. Girls inevitably change their profile picture on a more regular basis than the boys. We are an ego-centric, nosey nation, and now have a licence to pry quietly into other people’s lives and what makes them tick. Exhibitionism is a major characteristic of contemporary life. Except that on Facebook, you’re only exposing yourself to the people you choose, as opposed to the entire web.

You can also lose yourself in your kind of crowd. Join’ Michael Mifsud for President’ (869 members and growing). Or groups managed by restaurateurs, rock bands, politicians, journalists, socialites and lonely hearts. Throw a virtual sheep, send a zombie kiss, order an electronic ice cream or play Scrabulous with your grandmother.

Concerns about privacy are growing. Employers use Facebook to search and measure up current and prospective employees. Some may already be paying the price in terms of lost employee productivity without knowing it. And others have been quick to see the branding opportunities. Paraphrasing Shakespeare… all the world’s a stage, so potentially anyone and everyone is your audience. Act with caution.

Not everyone is convinced that all is what it seems to be. Who’s a friend? Are friends counted in numbers or shoulders to cry on? Are the ‘friends’ on your list simply contacts, or merely trophies? This is one facet of the internet: trying to personalise, even embody, contacts that could well be anonymous. Facebook can also stand for currently bored, lustful, socially unfulfilled or generally avoiding real life.

Yet surely there’s no easier device around to help you organise a party, share your videos and pictures, market your talents, illustrate your life, let people know your every mood swing. I found out about the lovely Café Brasil concert at MITP because ‘Indri Mangu’ set up a Facebook Group for the occasion. New friends to Facebook are regularly greeted by older ones with the rousing ‘what took you so long to get here?’ There must be a reason for being here, surely?

The Facebook backlash has started. Credit information group Equifax said members of sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook may be putting too many details about themselves online, and putting themselves at risk of identity fraud. Fraudsters could use these details to steal someone’s identity and apply for credits and benefits. About 80,000 people in the UK were victims of identity theft last year, at a cost to the economy of £1.5bn. Facebook’s own new Beacon Advertising Service added to concerns about privacy issues. On 6th December, Mark Zuckenger, the Facebook founder ate humble pie and apologised for the way Beacon had been launched. People simply don’t want their personal data used for commercial purposes without their permission – even if the company using it is as familiar a travelling companion as Facebook.

Despite its success, nobody is quite sure if Facebook is here to stay. While many profess an inability to live without it, the same people think that like all technologies, Facebook will eventually be surpassed. It’s the latest in a long line of social networks, starting from Friendster and, most recently, MySpace. Like all trends, the ‘cool kids’ will move on to the next big thing, and the masses will follow. Such is the fickle, transient nature that something deemed indispensible this year may well be old hat next. Just like the bar that was impossible to get into last summer and is not quite in vogue this year.

It’s as if our life cycles just got accelerated.

Maybe Facebook is just another indicator that being Maltese simply means being part of a global goldfish bowl. We use social networks like everyone else does. We will always run in herds to the next best thing, a time-poor, utility generation. Or maybe we’ve run to Facebook because the ‘cosy’ Maltese parochial life is long gone, as we spend more time in front of laptops, speak to fewer people in the flesh, pry over their shoulder online and gauge our social life success in terms of numbers of online friends. We long to feel connected in an age when one inevitably feels disconnected. There is a lot of talk, but much of it is mundane, and not of all of it may be true. We may be creating virtual online selves to make up for other things that we find lacking in our real lives.

Or maybe, we’re just smart, on the ball, and live full lives. Like millions of others, we are now connected, but on our own terms. The new glue for our social networks is online conversations. We’ve just become as good as anyone else in making our voice heard, assuming someone is really listening.

I suspect this conversation will keep going for a while longer.

More Facebook conversations here.

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