It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …
Dickens’ opening line in a Tale of Two Cities aptly describes the way I feel about the spread of Facebook. Moments after the announcement of the new social platform, I was already seeing what articles had been read by friends when I was at the CNN site, and what movies were liked by my social circle on IMDB. Every founder of every startup with even a hint of social ambition has imagined his product spread across the web like Facebook is today. This is the race to create the broadest sharing platform and unlock the social web’s holy grail.
And right now, Facebook is winning the race. Hundreds of millions of users are sharing where they go, who they know and what they like. This newly distributed social playground and marketing goldmine is big, powerful and possibly the most significant product to hit the internet since a few engineers thought to themselves, “Browsing is pretty cool, but wouldn’t search be even better?”
That’s my take as an internet investor and entrepreneur. My take as an internet civilian is a little different. In some cases, I find the data about what my friends have shared useful. I can see the benefit of knowing that on Yelp, my friend David “liked” the restaurant Papalote in San Francisco. There’s also probably some value in being forewarned that on IMDB he also “liked” the 1987 flick Spaceballs.
So yes, I do care what my friend David likes. In the last decade, I haven’t made a major consumer electronics purchase without checking with him first. And in general, my love for him is completely unconditional.
That said, I’m not sure I want to open up my morning newspaper and find him inside. Sometimes I really want to know what David likes. Sometimes I really like to spend time away from David and the rest of my extended social network. I am amazed that Facebook is powerful enough to tell me that David read a certain article in the Washington Post this morning. But in the moment, I am distracted by that information. I still want to be able to curl up with my virtual newspaper and read it by myself, and maybe even serendipitously stumble across an article now and then.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described his growing suite of tools by explaining: “We are building a Web where the default is social.” That makes total sense. The web should default to social. It’s a network after all. The problem is that the web is everywhere. And I don’t want every aspect of my life to be social. How can I have a moment to quietly think when I’m in a room filled with my four hundred million closest friends?
I know the sharing stuff is easy enough to turn on and off. But I am convinced that it will be increasingly difficult to shut out the noise. That’s certainly been the case with every other piece of technology – from email to texting to Twitter – that’s entered our lives in recent years.
I am in awe of the social graph and the power of sharing. But I am worried about group think and a growing inability to be alone. I worry that someday my entire world will be shared, annotated and generally infringed upon by everyone I’ve ever met (and maybe a few hundred million folks I haven’t).
I started this confession with a famous first line from a novel. I’ll end it with a look at how the experience of some other famous first lines may be altered for future readers if the trend towards being always-on and always-sharing and always-Facebooked continues.
Love in the Time of Cholera
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
Mother died today.
Wide Sargasso Sea
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The Old Man and the Sea
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
I am an invisible man.