Is Facebook the Future of Online Community?

facebookSheryl Nussbaum-Beach posted a very thorough round-up of current thinking in The Art of Building Virtual Communities over on the TechLearning blog.  If you haven’t read it, do.  I learned of it from industry veteran Howard Rheingold.  I’ve found over the years that when Howard says something is worth checking out, I’ll be sorry to have missed it.

While Nussbaum’s focus is around educational community formed on platforms like Ning and Elgg, I found myself thinking about how these principles apply to Facebook and similar social networking sites.

Facebook made the cover of Newsweek this week.  And in other critically important Facebook news, my soon-to-be-a-Freshman-in-college son, Steve, built his Facebook page this week.

I’ve experimented with several of these social networking sites over time. I have pages on Orkut (which seems to have forgotten everything it knew about me, since it became a part of Google!) Linked-In, MySpace, Facebook, and probably some others I’ve forgotten. But my use pretty much parallels the use of most people in my age group—I might check in every so often, but my social network page is not the center of my online life. There are a range of reasons for that, lots of competing priorities is a huge one, but it does seem that we middle-aged folk have rather more compartmentalized lives, and often, our online and offline venues are populated by very different groups of people.

With the kids, something very different is happening. Steve has been mentioning “setting up a Facebook page” in the same breath as the other pre-college tasks he needs to get done – get his computer set up, arrange the billing, coordinate with his roommate.  Within the first few hours of putting up his Facebook page, my son “friended” his older brother, the kid up the street with whom he shares a ride to work, and several other of his high school friends.  Apparently, a weeknight in summer is an excellent time to do this, because immediately, his wall filled with comments.

Nussbaum notes that one of the things which makes for healthy community is “Really active and consistent participation within the community. Community members really start to moderate themselves. It isn’t just the moderator that handles issues. And members greet someone when they are new and answer questions and do not just point newbies to a FAQ doc

Steve’s initial Facebook experience included “welcome to the addiction!” notes from several of his friends. And a long, funny post from the kid up the street, who has long served as something of a mentor to Steve, about how not to look stupid on Facebook, which transmitted critical community norms like “Post a picture!” and “Don’t use more than one of those add-in applications.” That nobody sent him to an FAQ is in part a reflection that all of these initial contacts came from people he met in person, first, and is linking to online, second.  The only person he has *not* already met in person who appears on his list of friends is the guy who will be his roommate when he starts school next month.

Poring over his future-roommate’s page is completely analogous to the way in my generation, we pored over the paper facebook which was mailed out before school started, featuring our high school graduation pictures and a few details we’d chosen to share about ourselves.

Steve is very conscious of the kind of impression he wants to make on his future classmates. But he’s constrained, in a way his dinosaur parents were not, by the ability of people who know him well to access his page and call him on any exaggerations or distortions he might choose to present as part of his profile.  There’s a tension between the desire to project the best of who he wants new friends to see, and the necessity of passing muster with the people who “knew him when.”

Right now, most of the people he knows on Facebook are his high school friends. In a few short weeks, that will change, and it will be the norms of his college community which will likely be those he will be most concerned about understanding, observing, and reflecting in his Facebook use.

People do “friend” people they haven’t met in person, and, according to Newsweek, even marry them. There are “groups” on facebook, but most are named affiliations only, few seem to engage in any group activity—even group discussions are sparse.  For most of its history, the driving power behind Facebook has been the vibrancy of the offline community to which its members are attached – first Harvard students, then other universities. It clearly has a hold on the college-bound high school crowd, but it remains to be seen whether Facebook will have the same “addictive” power for people are not already part of tightly-knit offline communities using this tool to facilitate other activities they engage in with each other.

I think this leaves the rest of us online community folks right back where we’ve always been. We find that in order to get the kind of passionate commitment we want to see, we need to take care that our communities are meeting real needs in the lives of our participants. It’s not about the tool, or the hype or lack of hype attending the tool. It’s about who is at the other end of the communication link, and how much we care about staying in touch.