The other value of Facebook
There is no shortage of debate over the value of Facebook with proponents arguing the virtues of sharing and social media and the critics pointing out the privacy issues and calling it a simple waste of time. I don’t intend to join the debate by adding another view point, but beyond what has already been mentioned, I find Facebook to be an incredibly valuable self-updating address book.
In my most recent trip to Tokyo, I met up with a friend from undergrad who I hadn’t seen since graduation (6 years) and a friend from middle school who I hadn’t seen since 7th grade (15 years!!!). They both saw that I was coming to Tokyo and sent me messages through Facebook.
Addresses, phone numbers, and even e-mail addresses change all the time. Heck, gmail is only 6 years old. Even hotmail, the original webmail service was started 14 years ago. For people in our generation in most developed countries (interestingly, not Japan), Facebook is now the most convenient way of keeping in touch with people.
What are the implications?
The data used to live on people’s shelves as address books and people’s computers as excel files, but the information is now held on an online server being managed by a for-profit company. It’s hard to imagine Facebook going away entirely, but people are kicked off all the time from Facebook (my account has been frozen twice). In fact, as more and more of our lives move online, increasing amounts information are being managed by private companies: photo albums (Flickr, Picasa, Facebook), address books (Google, Yahoo, Facebook), mailboxes (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft), music collection (Spotify, Pandora, Last.fm), personal videos (YouTube, Facebook), professional contact (LinkedIn, Plaxo), etc. I think we all use these services without full comprehension of the consequences, which I’m still not quite sure about.
There is also the issue of fragmentation over different generations and cultures. I am connected to very few of my friends over forty through Facebook, which should be no surprise. I mentioned above that Facebook is not the most convenient way of staying in touch with people in Japan, that is because we have our own social networking service called Mixi that is much more popular than Facebook. There is a strong likelihood that the generations behind us will deny Facebook and use some other service to keep in touch with each other, further fragmenting our address books.
Another issue I’ve recently realized is that not everyone treats Facebook as a self-updating address book. Since my account has been frozen twice and I put a tremendous amount of value in my Facebook account, I backup my account periodically using a $3 software called SocialSafe (perfectly legal and approved by Facebook). The interesting side effect of this software is that I see the people with whom I am no longer friends. Sometimes this is due to account closure (of which some are temporary) but more often they are the result of the now popular buzzword “unfriending.” I see this happening with people I met several times when I lived somewhere and either they or I moved away. They were never close friends so It’s perfectly understandable to be unfriended, but it could be rather sad, as he or she was deleted out of my address book. In a way it’s similar to changing phone numbers or e-mail addresses and not notifying people, but the process of unfriending seems a little bit more deliberate and personal than that.
In finishing, I sometimes wonder about and worry over our over-reliance on Facebook. To a certain extent, it is probably distracting us from managing our contacts the traditional way through pen and paper, excel files, or even online address books. I still carefully manage my contacts through Google Contacts (which is backed up on my hard drive) and keep a binder of all the business cards I collect.
Having said all this, what I experienced in Tokyo as a result of Facebook was absolutely wonderful and near impossible few years ago. I am glad Facebook exists and that many people, including myself use it. Who knows what kind of other salient connections it can build in the future.
PS I had a similar experience when I went to Ireland in February, where I met up with two friends whom I didn’t even know lived in Ireland.