The present population of the United States is just over 300 million. The “population” of Facebook is over 500 million. According to their own press room, that’s just the number of active users. If it were a country, Facebook would be the third largest on earth (China and India being the first).
About a year ago, Facebook passed up Google as the most viewed website in the U.S.
How long has Facebook existed? Seven years. It was launched in 2004 by 19 year old Mark Zuckerberg as a networking site for college students at Harvard, and by the time it was fully opened to the public in 2006, it was the seventh most popular site on the Internet.
Earth’s population is growing at a rate of about 357,000 babies born per day, and Facebook is growing at about double that number of new users per day.
One of the big questions that people have is, why? Why is Facebook growing so fast? What’s the big deal?
Perhaps the answer lies less in Facebook itself as in the timing that the website appeared. The first few years of the new century brought in a generation equipped with tools of empowerment, the likes of which had never been known in the history of the world. These tools were invented by the previous generation, who like a curious scientist struggling to decide how to introduce his discoveries, laid them out for people to discover, just to see what would happen. Slowly people started taking notice, and by the time the millennial generation came along, those tools were both a normal and necessary part of daily life.
Growing up with instruments that facilitate every person with a voice and a platform to share that voice, the millennial generation restructured the foundation of global human communication in less than ten years.
The result? The economy changed; the workforce changed; school systems changed; and people changed. It became normal for anyone anywhere to be able to contact anyone anywhere. Groups surrounding a hobby, interest, or cause could gather instantly and without need of authorization or location. The term conversation was given an additional definition: an overarching worldwide discussion taking place at all times by virtually everyone. Whether the definition was ever authorized or not was irrelevant, because even the scholarly dictionaries were replaced by those created by the combined voice of the masses.
Quickly content became a thing as casual as the spoken word. A 30 second video of a friend at the zoo became more interesting than a 30 minute sit-com on TV. People stopped carrying family wallet pictures because it was faster and cheaper to send hundreds of photos to 250 friends across the country. And why give Aunt Joan a call to update her on the kids when you can carry an ongoing conversation with the whole family (and include your friends) using a blog, with photos, stories, and video clips of your kids doing the very things you would have told her about?
Where once upon a time you would connect with your heros by buying their posters and accessories, now you could communicate directly with the hero on their Facebook page. You could tell them personally how much you liked their concert or their game, and even get a response.
Facebook didn’t start these trends, and it’s not the only platform for social networking and media, but Facebook came along at a moment when there was a critical mass of demand for social networking platforms. Other sites such as Myspace, twitter, and the whole blogosphere have all been major players in this new approach to communication and connection. Some have been around much longer than Facebook. Facebook is just the biggest at the moment. The tools and platforms employed matter very little compared with the overall snowballing of Internet social networking itself.
The media we once consumed, we can now create – with laptops, phones, and various handheld devices. And while the quality of a two minute home video might not match up with a monstrous multi-million dollar Hollywood film, the two compete well, since the home-made social media can be created and starred by friends and family. Of course there will always be a place for good solid entertainment, but it now has to share a seat with the rising tide of social media – and not just because of the time used in consuming media, but also from the time spent in creating them.
Never in the history of the world has it been so possible for anyone – anyone, to publish content to the world. We throw the word “revolution” around in our common language so much that it’s lost a great deal of its power, but even by it’s heaviest definitions (such as a revolt or fundamental change in society), social networking has placed worldwide communication in such a state. The world has never seen such a influx of voices being broadcast by so many, to so many, worldwide, as it is today.
Some are troubled by these changes. Others are curious, frightened, or excited by them, but none of us can ignore them. The Internet, with it’s media and networking platforms, is as big a revolution as was the invention of the printing press – perhaps even bigger. The printing press made it possible for books to be printed in large numbers. Suddenly there was a way to share information with masses. It was difficult and costly to get a message out, but it was possible, and those with enough power or money were able to do it.
Now, with the platforms available to us on the Web, there is no way to prevent someone from being able to broadcast their voice to the world, in virtually any format, at no cost at all. Governments have been trying since the introduction of the Internet to curtail these voices, but quickly all blockages are breaking away. Not only are the governments unable to stop this flow of communication, but the voices coming through are uprooting the entire infrastructure of monarchies and top-down systems that attempt to silence their own people. Since content and information sharing is changing from a consumer model to a social/sharing model, groups congregating via Internet have much greater influence than even the most powerful corporations and governments.
Not only has this change provided for anyone anywhere to become a producer and broadcaster, but it is introducing new motivations and new reasons for broadcasting that have never been seen before. People are sharing personal, private information with the entire world. They’re producing amazing products and asking nothing in return. They are spending hundreds of hours creating ridiculously silly videos with the knowledge that they will never go to Hollywood or earn a single dollar from it.
But it’s not about the tools. Marshall Mcluhan said, “We shape the tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.” While new tools are created by the technologically savvy and employed first by those who closely follow the trends, the technology employed by sites like Facebook and Twitter are really quite old compared to the newer tools mounting all over the Web. It’s the fact that they are old tools used regularly by a lot of people that make them socially powerful. Facebook’s basic setup is so simple that any new user can handle it. Scott Burkun said, “Technology is not an end unto itself. It is a facilitator. It enables us.”
This revolution is not about Facebook. It’s about the social networking trends that are shaping new tools of communication. As a society, this power is so new to us that we really haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. Accordingly, there are a lot of crazy conversations, bizarre businesses, and ridiculous rants happening everywhere, all mingled together with good, useful, powerful information.
Over the past few hundred years, mankind has developed a pretty effective method of sorting information that comes to us in the form of printing presses and books. Unfortunately, the information that we are now being flooded with via the Web does not have such an organized system. Yet the barrage of information and communication continues to flow in at an increasing rate. Much of the organization that must take place for media and communication will be social – by means of sharing, using increasingly effective tools.
Given the present trends, it’s quite likely that there will be a number of decades ahead that contain some measure of uncontrollable pandemonium in terms of what we do with these new tools. Even now, all over the world, people are either embracing or shunning new tools that come into society. Surrounding all of this is a wide range of excitement, frustration, and confusion. Some even demonstrate an almost laughable ambivalence. Thomas de Zengotita reflected the feelings of many when he said, “In the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind-boggling stimuli… whatever.”
In some ways, it’s like we’re living in our wildest science fiction stories – the excitement and liberation we are experiencing keeps us going, much like the old 1980 atari games consumed hours of our attention in the past. But the tools aren’t leaving. They’re here to stay, but like the the Atari, they’ll get bigger, better, more efficient, more meaningful, and more interesting. It will be awhile before life with social media and networking become “manageable” again. But it will be what we do with these new tools now that will shape the direction of the changes that are coming.
And it won’t be the silencing of voices that will finally get things under control again – rather it will be when everyone chooses to take part and speak out – and they’re comfortable doing so.
Wow, that last sentence was rather profound… I think I’ll put it as my status update.
Clay Shirky (WhippleHill Conference), author of Here Comes Everybody: http://www.whipplehill.com/news/podcasts/clayshirky.aspx
Youtube Project – An anthropological introduction to YouTube, The Machine is (Changing) Us: Youtube and the Politics of Authenticity
Digital Ethnography, Kansas State University: http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/
Ben Jones (WhippleHill Conference), Feb 16, 2010, Oberlin College Vice President for Communications and former Director of Communications for the MIT Office of Admissions: http://www.whipplehill.com/news/podcasts/benjones.aspx
Scott Burkun, WordPress in 2020, Wordcamp 2010 in San Francisco http://wordpress.tv/2010/05/01/scott-berkun-wordpress-future-sf10/