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Welcome to Facebook: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore

No matter what your age, Facebook and other social networks help you keep in touch with family, friends, and co-workers. This chapter explains what all the hoopla is about and why you should care about Facebook at all.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Facebook is where all the young people hang out online.

Now, I know you’re only as young as you feel, but if you’re reading a book called Facebook for Grown-Ups, you’re probably a tad past your school years. In other words, you’re not that young anymore. So why should you care about Facebook?

There’s a simple answer to that question. No matter what your age, Facebook and other social networks help you keep in touch with family, friends, and co-workers. Chances are you’ll find lots of friends already on the site—including, it would be fair to wager, all of your children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren, if you have them.

So if you want to keep in touch with (or keep tabs on) your kids, Facebook is the place to do it. Facebook is also a great place to catch up with old friends, even (and especially) those you haven’t seen since you all were a lot younger than you are today. You see, Facebook isn’t just for younger users; it’s for anyone wanting to keep in touch with anyone else.

What Social Networking Is and How It Works

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we get into what Facebook is and what it does, let’s take a look at the whole social networking phenomenon. That’s what Facebook is, after all—a social network. (And not just any old social network; Facebook is the world’s largest social network. That’s why everybody uses it.)

What Is a Social Network?

A social network is a large website that hosts a community of users, and makes it easy for those users to communicate with one another. Social networks enable users to share experiences and opinions with one another via status updates, short text messages that are posted for public viewing by all of that person’s friends on the site.

There are lots of social networks out there on the Web. Some, such as LinkedIn or Flixster, are devoted to a particular topic or community. Others, such as Facebook and MySpace, are more broad-based. These general social networks make it easy for communities devoted to specific topics to develop within the overall site.

Why Do People Use Social Networks?

Okay, that’s a fairly academic description of what a social network is. But what does a social network do—or, more concisely, why do people use a social network?

To my mind, social networks are all about communicating, staying in touch with one another. It’s the 21st-century way to let people know what you’re up to—and to find out what everyone else is up to, too.

In the old, old days, the only way you found out about what was going on was for someone to write you a letter. That probably sounds quaint today, as letter writing is somewhat out of fashion. But I’m guessing you’re old enough to have written a few letters in your time, or at least to have seen your parents do so.

Ah, the joys of receiving a letter from an old friend! I miss seeing a friend’s address in the top left corner, opening the envelope, and savoring the words within. Of course, most friends didn’t write that often; writing was a lot of work, so you saved up your thoughts and experiences until you had a full letter’s worth. But, man, it was great to read what your friends had been doing. It almost made the wait worthwhile.

That was then and this is now. Today, nobody has the time or the patience or the attention span to write or read long letters. At some point, a decade or so ago, email replaced the written letter as our primary means of correspondence. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; emails were shorter than written letters, but you got them immediately—and you could respond to them immediately, too. With the Internet age came this faster and more direct form of communication, and we adapted to it.

For young people today, however, email is old hat. It’s too slow and takes too much time. (They’d never have tolerated the age of the written letter...) Instead, our attention deprived youth prefer immediate communication, via text messages and instant messages and such.

The problem with all these forms of communication is that they’re not centralized. If you’re text messaging with a dozen friends, that’s a dozen different “feeds” of information you have to keep track of. Same thing with instant messaging; there’s no central repository where you can read all your friends’ messages in one place.

This is where social networking comes in. Instead of writing a dozen (or a hundred) different letters or emails to each of your friends telling them that you just bought a new dress (or car or house or whatever), you make a single post that then those dozen (or hundred) different people can read. Something happens, you write about it, it gets posted on the social networking site, and everyone you know reads about it. It takes all the work out of keeping your friends up-to-date on what you’re doing.

Of course, it works in the other direction, too. Instead of waiting for letters or emails or text messages from each of your friends, you just log onto the social networking site. There you find a feed of updates from everyone you know. Read the feed and you’re instantly updated on what everyone is up to. That makes it really easy to keep in touch.

Now, social networking lets you do a lot more than just exchange status updates, but that’s the most common activity and the reason most of us do the social networking thing. Communications to and from all your friends, all in one place, all done in your Web browser from your personal computer. (Or, if you’re a mobile kind of person, from your cell phone.) It’s like communications central for everyone you know—close friends or otherwise.

What Other Stuff Does a Social Network Do?

I just mentioned that social networking offers more than simple status updates. What is all that other stuff? Here’s a short list:

  • Private communications. This can take the form of a built-in email system (that is, the email is contained within the social networking site; you don’t need separate software to use it) or live instant messaging.

  • Groups and forums. These are like online clubs built around specific areas of interest. You can find groups for hobbies like woodworking or quilting, for topics like politics or sports, for just about anything you can think of. There are even groups devoted to specific companies, schools, and even entertainers—these last being more like fan clubs than anything else.

  • Photo and video sharing. That’s right, most social networks let you upload your pictures and movies and share them with all your friends on the network.

  • Games and applications. If you have too much free time on your hands, most social networks include fun games you can play, as well as other applications and utilities that add functionality to the site. (For example, Facebook offers apps that help you track family members, organize your book and music libraries, and such.)

  • Marketplace. Get enough people congregated on a single website, and there’s a lot of things those people can do together—including buy and sell things. Many social networks offer online marketplaces, similar to Craigslist classifieds, so that you can find out what other members have for sale—or are interested in buying.

There’s a bit more than even all this, including event scheduling and the like, but you get the general idea. A social network is an online community, and offers many of the same activities that you’d find in a real-world community.

Who Uses Social Networks?

With all that social networks have to offer, it’s not surprising that so many people use them day in and day out. As with many new technologies, social networks started out as a thing used by college students. (That’s how the Internet itself took off, after all.) But over time social networking spread from the young generation into the general public, including old farts like you and me.

Today, the audience for social networking is rapidly evolving. In fact, the fastest-growing demographic on the Facebook site are those of us 45 years or older. (Take that, you young whippersnappers!)

In practice, then, social networks are home to all sorts of users, including:

  • Friends and family members who want to keep in touch
  • People looking for long-lost friends
  • Business colleagues who use the site for collaboration and networking
  • Singles who want to meet and match up with other singles
  • Hobbyists looking for others who share their interests
  • Classmates who need study partners and homework advice
  • Musicians, actors, and celebrities connecting with their fans

And, of course, college and high school students. (That’s until they move onto the next big thing, of course.)

How Did Social Networks Develop?

Interestingly, today’s social networks evolved from the earliest dial-up computer networks, bulletin board systems (BBSs), and other online discussion forums. That’s right, Facebook and MySpace are only a few steps removed from CompuServe, Prodigy, and The WELL. (I assume you’re old enough to remember some of these services—including the original America Online.)

These early proto-communities, most of which predated the formal Internet in the 1970s and 1980s, offered topic-based discussion forums and chat rooms, just like Facebook does today. What they didn’t offer was a way to follow friends on the site, or to publicly share status updates. But the seeds of social networking were there.

Other components of social networking developed after the rise of the public Internet. For example, topic-based website communities, like iVillage, Epicurious, and Classmates.com, arose in the mid-1990s. Personal blogs, which let users post short articles of information and opinion, emerged around the year 2000. And photo-sharing sites, such as Flickr and Photobucket, became a part of the Internet landscape in the early 2000s.

The first site to combine all of these features was Friendster, in 2003. Friendster also introduced the concepts of “friends” and “friending” to the social Web; it all came from the name, not surprisingly.

Friendster enjoyed immediate popularity (more than 3 million users within the first few months of operations), but ran into technical problems associated with that growth and was soon surpassed by MySpace, which launched later the same year. MySpace became the most popular social networking site in June 2006, and remained the top social network for almost two years.

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