On Tuesday, I participated in a panel at Dartmouth on "Facebook: Its Impact on Us and on Society," sponsored by the Institute for Security, Technology, and Society. Below is an edited version of the remarks I made:
My tag line on the panel announcement was, "A professor, using Facebook? What for?" That may be a bit misleading - I am certainly "on" Facebook and Facebook knows that I am a professor, but it is not clear that there is any meaningful way in which I am "using" it as a professor as opposed to any other 39-year old guy with a desk job.
Facebook may be the latest great thing, but we should understand it just as much for what it has in common with its predecessors as how it is innovative. I think of Facebook as a tool for communication. How good a tool it is depends on how well it allows us to broadcast, to connect, and to target. I'd like to structure my remarks around my perceptions of how well or how uniquely Facebook performs in each of these aspects and then note how well it serves me as a professor.
As just a quick example, I find its ability to target advertising to be better than what I am used to on the internet. Some online advertising is chosen based on what the broadcaster posted - think of an ad on a newspaper's website. More sophisticated online advertising is chosen based on what the user searched for - think of Google ads. But on Facebook, we go to the next level and get online advertising based also on the content of the user's profile. That's got to be better targeted, and on Facebook I do find the ads less intrusive. Maybe that's because Facebook allows me to provide feedback on the ads that I see. With regard to being a professor, Facebook also knows that I am a professor of economics, but only a very small percentage of my ads seem to be targeted toward that information.
Facebook excels most in the way it forms connections - around naturally occurring groups like high school and college classes. And, unlike other similar attempts at alumni networking, it puts all of the groups in the same format, so that a given person can be in more than one group and that links can be made across groups as well. By way of comparison, now that I have Facebook, I would never spend any time online at the alumni site maintained by my alma mater and probably wouldn't think to update it if my contact information changed. Facebook has become the default place for everyone to be in their social networking.
As a professor, I do appreciate the ability to stay connected with former students via Facebook. But that's about the extent of it. To "connect" with my current students, my authority as the professor means that I can require them to use a more pedagogically focused website, like the Blackboard system at Dartmouth. As a professional economist, Facebook in its current form is of limited value. Some of my Facebook friends are people I met because we are in the same profession, but most of what we are sharing has very little to do with our professional work and more to do with just wanting to be connected to someone - like all of those long lost high school buddies - that we might otherwise not hear from.
So now we come to the issue of broadcasting. As a professor, I broadcast a lot, but in the case of students it is to a captive audience and in the case of my professional colleagues it is to a highly specialized audience. Facebook isn't particularly attractive in either case. I have been a blogger for nearly five years. That's intellectual (if not scholarly) broadcasting and it was doing just fine before Facebook. With the new technology, my co-bloggers and I use both Twitter and Facebook to make sure that our content is available wherever people would want to find us. But that really isn't an innovation of Facebook.
I'd like to close by noting that the way Facebook enhances broadcasting is both its greatest strength and its biggest shortcoming. One thing people will tell you about Facebook is that a lot of the content - even content we have all opted into seeing - is utterly trivial. You have to wonder why that is.
There is a danger every time we get the "next big thing" to think that its greatest shortcomings are new. In fact, they are often quite old. To persuade you of this, I am going to read to you two excerpts from a speech called "Television and the Public Interest" by a gentleman named Newton N. Minow, who was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when he delivered it to the National Association of Broadcasters in May of 1961. You can find the whole speech at a great website, American Rhetoric dot com:
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
That the internet has become a vast wasteland is not a surprise - that happens with all technologies that allow for broadcasting to a wide audience. It was true then of television. It is true now of Facebook. It is interesting to hear what Minow suggested as the cure for television's problems:
I have told you that I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe that most of television's problems stem from lack of competition. This is the importance of UHF to me: with more channels on the air, we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to offer service to all parts of the public. Programs with a mass market appeal required by mass product advertisers certainly will still be available. But other stations will recognize the need to appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes. In this way, we can all have a much wider range of programs. Television should thrive on this competition, and the country should benefit from alternative sources of service to the public.
Considering that television is now more of a vast wasteland than it was 48 years ago, I think it is safe to say that competition wasn't the answer. The answer is a combination of variety in programming and customization in delivery. With television, the big innovations were the ability to channel surf and to record. You can customize your viewing. Customization is also the way that Facebook will survive - by giving the user more and more freedom to control what gets in and filter out what is uninteresting.