Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Facebook goes public...

And I don't mean an IPO. Facebook finally opened their doors. They declared war on the MySpace empire. Now, anyone can sign up, join a network, and be on Facebook.

Good thing or bad? Most college kids don't like the idea of it. But screw them, right? It's overall registered users and page views that matter. And most pundits agree the move will boost both, thus increasing the site's overall value.

However, I feel their analysis could be a little superficial. Today, college kids make up the vast majority of Facebook users, especially the avid ones that sign in almost every day. How will this move affect them?

Well, their non college friends will be able to get on the network, so more friends means more time on the site right? Not necessarily. As an example, today I received a friend request from a someone I used to work with.

And the dilemma hit. Clicking accept would give this guy insight into the college-me. The partying, off-color joke making, irresponsible, immature me. Not the image I want this guy seeing. Or any potential employer. Or certain family members. The list goes on and on.

So what does this mean on a large scale? This move could simply take the "social" out of Facebook's social network. When Facebook was college-exclusive, its members felt safe. Facebook was their place, where they could express themselves and not worry about who was looking over their shoulders. So they did, and did so often, giving Facebook a very active user base.

But now Facebook is open. To me the problem is real - do I strip my profile down to the bare bones (a picture, name, and email), removing the social aspects of the site (my wall and photos, for example)?

And how many other people are pondering the same thing? Sure, not many today. But the question will spread, because at the end of the day, it's not actual privacy that concerns people, it's perceived privacy. The company can implement all the privacy restrictions it wants, but people are only as safe as they feel. And when a freshman with a profile picture of himself drinking a beer gets a friend request from his Mom, he's going to reevaluate how much social "expressing" he really wants to do on Facebook.

And when the site's members feel they can't express themselves freely, they'll stop. No more posting pictures or writing on each other's walls. No more creative profiles. And Facebook will be reduced to a glorified address book, if that.

OK, so I'm not saying all of this will necessarily happen. But I am painting a picture of a possibile future. And the crux of the issue rings true - Facebook enjoys an active, avid user base primarily because college kids have deemed it an acceptable online outlet for social expression. If that changes for any reason (real or imagined), Facebook could fall out of popularity very quickly, at least with the college audience.

At the end of the day, the move will probably help the company compete directly with MySpace and other social networks. However, its consequences may lead to it backfiring if Facebook's heaviest users decide the site is not secure or exclusive enough for social expression.

And, if they do decided that, could it be that the site's total page views could, gasp, go down? No one knows, but as always, time will tell... Thoughts?

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