As I've said before, I'm no fan of Facebook - in fact, I think that ultimately, it is no more than a poor caricature of what social networking can be and do. Clearly, that's not stopped the site's rapid growth, but as Facebook users themselves have had more time to come to terms with the environment they're now operating in, I think it's in good part responsible for the fact that in some key territories, Facebook usage numbers have now plateaued and even declined.
The main problem here is with the thoughtlessness with which Facebook handles what should be its central asset - the social networks that its users belong to. Social networks are defined in the first place by the term 'friend', but being friends with someone on the site is no more than a binary decision: you either are, or you're not. There's no opportunity to do what we do in our lives outside of Facebook every day - to distinguish between different types and levels of friendship: work colleagues, old school friends, family members, neighbours, ex-lovers, casual acquaintances must all be classified simply as either 'friend' or 'non-friend'. What's the use of that?
On my Facebook profile page (which I hardly ever visit), there are now some 30 friend requests waiting for me - some are genuine friends, some are students and colleagues, some are casual acquaintances or friends-of-a-friend. Overall, they have nothing more in common than that they - somehow - know (of) me. In no context other than within the artificial sociality of Facebook would anyone consider all of these people to belong to the same category. And I have no means to properly qualify the level of friendship which connects me to another person - I can't distinguish between people I've known for 20 years and people whom I've never heard of, but who may have read one of my books; I can't tell family members from colleagues at work whom I occasionally exchange ideas with.
This fundamentally ignores some of the basics of how we as humans understand the social networks we're embedded in. We don't just see everyone as our 'friends', but instead have social ties with others that are more or less strong - and for most of us, there's a pretty low upper limit on the maximum number of really close friends we have. (Perhaps it's just me, but I don't know that I'd even say that I have 30 extremely close, 'through-thick-and-thin' friends - so who are those 30 who want to befriend me on Facebook?) Which highlights the absurdity of the Facebook 'friends' system: any social network that enables any of its members to claim that they have 10,000 or more friends doesn't deserve to be called 'social network'; what the tag 'friend' in Facebook really means is no more than 'here's someone I know (of)' - and what good is that if I can't also say 'but here are my very best mates'?
So in essence, Facebook's enforced flattening of the complexities of social relationships into a binary yes/no choice dilutes the salience of its social network to the point of uselessness. This is further exacerbated by the limited role of groups as a means of defining and developing much more closely connected clusters of users. Yes, it is possible to set up Facebook groups for particular purposes - but overall, group functionality in Facebook is more an afterthought than a central aspect of the site: the individual (and their featureless network of generic 'friends') is central to the site. Facebook is now suffering from its own success: while in its initial stages, being able to use the site to reconnect with old friends, to keep in touch with events in the daily lives of friends and acquaintances, and to form various social communities may have been a major drawcard, the rapid growth of the Facebook community and the site's very limited functionality for developing effective social protocols to manage such a large number of users have become major obstacles to its continued viability. (As Cory Doctorow recently put it, "for every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there's a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy".)
Perhaps it's just poor or lazy design; perhaps the flatness of the site's social structure is somehow driven by the deeply entrenched neo-con views that some claim exist amongst Facebook's founders - a libertarian vision of sociality centred around highly independent individuals rather than around strong communities bound by consensually developed, ever-evolving social protocols? Whatever it is, it's starting to lose its lustre. That decline has been helped along also by increased concerns about privacy in the wake of the introduction of Facebook's controversial social marketing tool Beacon, and by the growing realisation of many Facebook users that their data remains (somewhere) in the system even if they choose to leave Facebook and delete their accounts. My colleague Jean Burgess is only one of a growing number of former Facebook members who have had to go to great trouble to reclaim their personal information - and personal privacy - from the Facebook vortex.
And indeed, I guess, ultimately that's what it is: a vortex, a maelstrom, a sinkhole - an insidious system for luring as many users as possible into taking up Facebook membership, for ensnaring their data trails, and for monetising their online activities. Facebook operates as a gated community - an AOL-style walled garden, as I noted in my recent essay for Re-Public. Its gated approach to online activity can be read as a fairly cynical attempt to hijack the hive (a strategy for extracting profit from produsage communities through participation lock-in which I've described elsewhere): its boundaries are easily permeable for incoming users, and permit outsiders and logged-off users to see just enough of a shadow of the activities taking place behind its walls to generate that feeling that perhaps they should have a look for themselves; every time one of my Facebook 'friends' tags a photo of me, prods and pokes me, or otherwise does something which somewhere, somehow relates to me, a message goes out that's designed to draw me back into the fold.
In order to really participate in Facebook, and indeed in order to even find out what exactly others are saying about you on Facebook, you must join, you must log on - and (see above) once you're in, it's very difficult to get out again: the boundaries of this walled garden are easy to pass through on the way in, but much harder to break through on the way out. Facebook is the Net's Hotel California ("you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"), or, as Jean puts it more bluntly in her post:
Whoa, what? I CAN'T LEAVE a commercial service that I never thought was super awesome in the first place and now I'm sick of BECAUSE MY SOCIAL WORLD IS STARTING TO DEPEND ON IT???
Happily, while Facebook is an increasingly transparent attempt to hijack the hive - to capture and commercialise user activity -, more sensible alternatives are also readily available. As far as I'm concerned, a core aspect of such sites must be that they allow for the development and self-organisation of strongly connected social communities whose members retain their power over when, where, and how they interact. Many researchers have pointed to the ways in which online communities collaboratively develop protocols (rules, value systems, mechanisms) for their interaction; these protocols are always directly related to the shared object of interest in the community (whether that's software development, intellectual or recreational pursuits, or sociality itself) - but they're not bound to a specific technology or space of interaction in the way that Facebook attempts to bind participants to its site.
The communities of daytime soap opera fans studied by Nancy Baym or the communities of progressive rock fans which I've researched in the past, for example, have developed protocols to facilitate sometimes controversial discussion on the merits of various cultural texts while maintaining a shared sense of common purpose and a strong understanding of what it is that unites them as fans; the communities of open source developers working on specific projects have protocols to evaluate individual contributions to the project while maintaining an overall development roadmap. Wherever they are, they collaboratively shape their own spaces; they make use of whatever technologies are at hand and useful for the job. Michel Bauwens describes this as "a new form of protocollary power":
the genius of the protocols devised in peer to peer initiatives is that they avoid the creation of a collective individual with agency. Instead, it is the communion of the collective which filters value. ... Not having given anything up of their full power, the participants in fact voluntarily take up the concern not only for the whole in terms of the project, but for the social field in which its operates.
One alternative to Facebook which allows for such collective processes (without attempting to ensnare and hijack the hive) is Ning - a relatively new site I've grown very fond of over the last month or so. (Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen is one of its founders.) Rather than existing as a generic site for the conduct of sociality, centred around the individual, its fundamental unit of operation is the social network community, and Ning supports some 185,000 such communities now, from the P2P Foundation community to the SXSW '08 Insider's Guide. This solves many of the problems associated with massive 'flat' sites like Facebook: it enables individual users to attach themselves to a number of different communities (or start their own), and allows these communities to develop their own protocols for social networking and interaction.
Ning can be described in short, therefore, as a kind of 'Facebook done right'. On Facebook, social capital in the network is measured mainly on a quantitative basis: the more friends you have, the more of a network hub you are. Qualitative aspects - strong or weak ties, and the context of your connection with another person in the network - hardly get a look in: all links in the network are virtually equal, and thus ultimately equally meaningless. On Ning, the balance is reversed: it's the communities you belong to, and the meaningful contributions you make to those communities, that indicate your place in the network - not the friendship scores you rack up on your profile page.
And Ning is anything but a walled garden. Its boundaries are immensely permeable in both directions - in the form of RSS feeds, Flickr photos, YouTube clips, and other materials, content can be drawn into Ning easily, but what happens on Ning is also instantly visible to users on the wider Web (there's even a widget for posting Ning activity to Facebook), so that community interaction doesn't have to stop where Ning stops. (That said, Ning sites can be set to 'private', though.) Ning can be just one element - a central hub, aggregator, forum, perhaps - in a federated network of personal and collective blogs, wikis, collaborative project sites, and there's no requirement for all members of that federation to commit to it.
Also following that federated, cross-site logic, Ning has begun rolling out support for Google's nascent OpenSocial API framework, which - put very simply - detaches social networking applications and activities from the sites and platforms they're running on, and has been touted as Google's way of galvanising a loose collection of open and interoperable social networking platforms into a strong alliance that can offer a vigorous challenge to Facebook's walled garden model. Little comfort for those still caught in Facebook's maelstrom, but excellent news for those of us who believe that the open flow of information is infinitely preferable to proprietary lock-down.
Frankly, in my view, Facebook's walled garden approach ultimately perverts the idea of social networking, of social interaction, of sociality itself; however popular it may be today, I fear that as its inner workings become more and more obvious, we'll find that that Facebook is giving social networking a bad name. Ning, and other sites like it, go some way towards reclaiming the idea of social networking by providing a more sensible, sustainable, and indeed social alternative. No doubt some of them have their own flaws - but overall, good luck to them!