Charles Peterson on Facebook

In the New York Review of Books, Charles Peterson uses a review of two books about social networking – Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and Julia Angwin’s Stealing MySpace – as the jumping off point for a long meditation on the origins, nature and character of the social networking spaces we inhabit.

In doing so, Peterson makes some extremely insightful points, particularly about Facebook:

Facebook was successful early on because it didn’t depart significantly from how its audience interacted, and because it started at the top of the social hierarchy. Zuckerberg distinguished his site through one innovation: Facebook, initially at least, would be limited to Harvard. The site thus extended one of the primary conceits of education at an elite university: that everyone on campus is, if not a friend, then a potential friend, one already vetted by the authorities. Most previous social networks, such as MySpace and Friendster, had been dogged by the sense that, while one might use them with friends, they were to a substantial degree designed for meeting strangers. But nobody is a stranger in college, or at least that’s the assumption at a school like Harvard, so nobody would be a stranger on Facebook.


As Facebook expanded from colleges to the rest of the public, always retaining tight control over how every page appeared, the site’s aesthetics thus began to seem less comparable to the dorm room design principle of in loco parentis and more akin to the authoritarian building codes of a planned community. Facebook did allow members to begin personalizing their pages with elements built by outside programmers. But the basic layout of one’s page couldn’t change; each new addition had to be slotted into Facebook’s rigid design. This was the predominant mode of what might be called Facebook’s “suburban period,” which began in September 2006 and continues, in many ways, into the present. We can pinpoint the start date so precisely because at the same time that Zuckerberg opened Facebook to anyone who wanted to join, he launched a function that has since come to dominate the site: the “News Feed.”

The News Feed, as the name suggests, resembled a personalized wire service. “Imagine a device that monitors the social marketplace the way a blinking Bloomberg terminal tracks incremental changes in the bond market,” The New York Times described the new feature at its debut. But I would propose an alternate metaphor: the suburban backyard fence. Facebook, when restricted to colleges, had relied on the typically intense social lives of students in the dorm room and at the dining hall. It was possible to obsessively check the pages of a few good friends or a cute girl in your class, but you could easily ignore everyone else.

The News Feed, by contrast, made everyone and everything an object of gossip by automatically sending the minutest changes to a wide circle of “friends.” Along with the pleasure of learning that a crush had added Godard to her list of favorite filmmakers, you had to endure image after image of the drunken escapades of people you hadn’t seen in years. New features were supposed to screen out some “friends,” but these settings barely worked.

The whole article is well worth a read.

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