The Social Network(s): Not Nearly As Unfriendly As They Used To Be

Friends at last.

If you’ve seen “The Social Network,” the critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin/David Fincher movie that tells the story of the origins of Facebook (as adapted from The Accidental Billionaires), then you surely remember one particular aspect of the site in its earliest form: exclusivity.  According to what is now a semi-disputed historical account, Mark Zuckerberg liked the idea of a website that not only allowed for users to find information on one another, but one that also carried the cache that comes with the name ~Harvard~.  By limiting the user base to those with a email account, Facebook naturally would take on the aura of a club that had a strict admittance policy.

It is within this environment that I first encountered Facebook, or “The Facebook,” as it was known at that time.  It was mid-July of 2004, and I was teaching at a summer program for middle schoolers in Massachusetts, while on summer break from William & Mary (where I was about to enter my senior year).  The program’s faculty was comprised largely of undergraduate students from elite institutions, many of which are based in the New England area.  When I noticed that our limited break time was often used by fellow faculty members to browse this website that I didn’t recognize, I one day walked over to a friend (who was one of the users) and asked what it was.  His reply, which came back in an oddly over the top and uncharacteristic way, turned to me and noted flatly, “It’s The Facebook.  It’s an Ivy thing,” without a hint of irony in his voice.  Seconds later, it seemed to hit him how he sounded, and he gave me a more thorough tour of the site.

The original header on The Facebook.
The original header on The Facebook.

Of course, despite that awkward first encounter with the site that I would grow to use with shameful frequency, I was excited to sign up when it arrived on my home campus later that year.  I believe that it speaks volumes to contrast the site’s initial aims with its current public agenda.  Mark Zuckerberg’s actual Facebook profile lists what he does at Facebook as “Making the world more open and connected,” which is quite a departure from setting up an intentionally exclusive web space.

Perhaps the shift in ideology of a site like Facebook is merely indicative of the logical shift of the web in the mid 2000’s.  After all, sites like Friendster, MySpace, Flickr, and YouTube all emerged during this time period with social elements of their own.  Much as news sites gave way to aggregator sites, sites built upon social connections emerged in a sense from what had been a more individually-focused web.

This development in the way we use the Internet and other technologies has long interested me personally as well as academically.  I was only partially surprised to recently stumble upon several papers from an undergraduate media and society course from 2004 in which many of my papers addressed some of the broadly discussed issues that we explore today (including one on how the Drudge Report was a prime indicator of our movement towards shortened, succinct messaging on the web and one on AOL Instant Messenger’s potential impact on the undergraduate experience).

I’m happy to say that I’m currently in the midst of research (over at the Lynch School) that addresses these issues within the context of higher education.  My dissertation research, which should begin in earnest late 2013/early 2014, will look specifically at social media’s role in affecting college student social engagement and social awareness.  My hope is that this course will give me a much greater perspective on some of the topics within social media that are just now emerging, but from a very pragmatic perspective.  I genuinely enjoy the discussions that have taken place in our course to date, and the main reason why is that business school students don’t seem to be afraid to ask the “OK, so what” types of questions.  At some point, the practical application of these new tools afforded to us is really of primary importance.  The entrepreneurial and results-oriented perspective is one that may allow us to fully harness the power of our ongoing technological advances.  With the recent decade or so of openness and sharing that we have seen across web platforms, it will be truly interesting to see social media’s impact on society as a whole.  And really, how much fun is exclusivity, anyway?