SO what about Facebook as a technology system? How does it stack up against other ‘open’ technologies? Is it, as several researchers have suggested, equivalent in social impact to the telephone?
It offers a host of features:
- Status update
- Messaging (internal email)
- Chat (closed to friends)
- Events organiser (parties, etc)
- Common ‘wall’ – Newsfeed
- Photo uploading
- Daily horoscopes (etc)
- Contacts search, recommendations
- Friends prompts (via email)
- Friend’s birthday reminders / messages
- Special interest group formation
- Tagging (text and photos)
New features are added continuously (since its introduction in 2004), as are changes to the interface.
A new significant feature, just introduced in December 2011, is Timelines. This uses the personal data stored over a long period on Facebook to be re-compiled, thus allowing someone to feature main events in their lives.
It’s the seamless integration and relative ease of use that makes Facebook so effective. A user is taken (ie. with no training) through the features of Facebook, using the Help Centre when necessary. Very few users complain that the system is very difficult to use (although some claim there is no usability testing), and its use has improved general digital literacy enormously (particularly for the “digital immigrants‘).
All of its features work mainly off the one screen. There are no long and complicated navigation pathways to follow, so there is no spending time first to find a function before using it.
As a technology system, it allows an ‘openness’. The user feels as though they have complete control, and within certain (hidden) technology constraints, the user manipulates the system as they want – to fit it to their personal needs. One gets the impression that over time, users have used the system differently than was initially expected, and Facebook programmers followed the user trends, adding in new functionality and responding to user demands for privacy, data deletion and transferability. It is highly adaptable to new trends, competitors and protests.
Deleting data and entire accounts has always been an issue, and the Facebook proprietors have responded to the user demand with a defined process.
There was also a major difficulty extracting content and transferring it to another system (interoperability), but in 2010, this too has been attended to.
Although it is suggested that the content is user owned, the content is granted to Facebook proprietors as “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License)”.
It provides a very restrictive template, allowing no personalisation. Every Facebook site is the same. There is no allowance for individualised presentation – it’s all in the content. It’s a reminder of who’s in charge. It also allows the Facebook proprietors to make template layout changes, add new features, etc. seamlessly to all users’ pages.
Where there is no compromise is on Facebook’s use of profile data, as this is related directly to their business model: the $4.2 billion / year it generates for its targeted ads. It sells the demographic data on every person to other companies, which they then use to advertise and market their products and services.
Facebook provides a major change in the way many communicate. For instance, emailing friends has become basically redundant.
Facebook’s communications features far exceed that of the 19th Century telephone. However, it does not provide a telephone’s personal and private voice intimacy, so sharing hardship and heartbreak are not part of Facebook’s domain. This makes an interesting comparison.