Sunday, May 16, 2010

What real good has Facebook done? and is it worth it?

Amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding recent changes to Facebook's privacy policies (and practices?), a friend posed a question to friends and family members connected via Facebook: "What real good has FB done? and is it worth it?"

For me, Facebook has been evidence of social networking coming of age. Not to come off as a fogey, but "I was there when it all started." In the past, I made some new friends online whom I've valued for nearly 2 decades, and I was lucky to reconnect with a couple people I'd lost contact with along the way through life. But the thing is, all the people I connected with online in the 90s or even the early 2000s were pretty geeky - a lot of lost old friends remained lost.

The real good that FB has done for me is as the vehicle that *actually works* to reconnect me with some favorite, far less tech-savvy people from every stage in my life. Several things had to shift to change that:

1) The online population had to reach a critical mass. Not just getting email accounts, but also becoming "present" online, which means building a version of themselves via providing information.

2) Tools had to get friendly enough for Grandpa Joe and Auntie Luddite to be able to use them. The tools we used in the 90s were primitive and non-intuitive, and presented a huge barrier for the vast majority of people.

3) Revenue had to be reachable in order to pay for the programmers and other creators required to make those tools. Plenty got built by hobbyists and academics back in the day, but the results were, as mentioned above, only friendly to geeks.

Facebook costs a bunch of money to run and evolve, but it is "free" for us to use. The cost to all of us users is the information we trade for access to all the tools and toys and people that we get to play with on Facebook.

As a businessman, I recognize the value of that information in a visceral way - if I can't get people to give me some information about themselves, I can't reach them to tell them about the products I create and sell.

Here's the thing I think it all boils down to for me: I am responsible for what information I put on Facebook.

They don't - and won't - have my social security number nor my credit cards.

They don't have any info I don't consciously give them, including in my status updates, the groups I join, the names of the albums of photos I post, and the people I connect with.

I don't post evidence that I went out and got hammered on Friday night. I don't "friend" old aquaintances who are too stupid to be discreet about youthful indiscretions that may or may not have allegedly occurred when I was an allegedly indiscreet youth. I don't post strong political opinions, or spout about things I wouldn't say in front of my mother. I give enough public info that old friends searching for me can find me, and shut down the rest of it to "friends only."

Through some clever algorithm, the ads I see on the edge of the page as I surf FB are relevant to me. I see more ads for snowboards and training conferences and mountain vacations and bands I like than I do for diapers or dating services or motorsports or whatever ads YOU see. I see that as a benefit! (and again as a businessman, hooray for effective targeting of ads!)

I'm not a pollyanna about all this. Someone I grew up with no doubt has a photo or two that would embarrass the hell out of me if they posted it. Some stranger might learn a little more about me than I would share with them in the physical world.

And I'm HUGELY RELIEVED that my kids think FB is stupid - I shudder to think of the things I see some of my friends' kids post and how it all may come back to haunt them! And the drama of teenage relationships just gets magnified in all sorts of horrible ways on FB.

But my friend asked - is it worth it? The way I'm using it, most definitely.

Some minor marketing we do for GCP has exposed a broader audience to our products and people.

It's a blast getting surprised by old friends from around the world and seeing what my cousins are up to while we all remain too lazy to write letters to each other.

It's great to be able to see where my friends are skiing next weekend so we can get together.

And it's very satisfying to see friends who don't know each other getting the opportunity to benefit from the mutual connections that "networking" means by definition.