If you’ve logged on to Twitter Facebook recently, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the new format of the News Feed. Formerly an aggregator of various personal announcements, photo uploads, and other minutiae, the News Feed has seemingly transmogrified into an ADHD Twitter Timeline, indiscriminately listing all manner of updates from close friends and ghosts of friendships past alike. The change is hardly so stark as when Facebook first introduced the News Feed and opened the community entirely in 2006, but this shift represents the latest development in the site’s evolution from a tool of exclusivity and selective information sharing to that of inclusiveness and personal broadcast.
Most of Facebook’s millions of members probably have no recollection of the site’s infancy, when access was granted only to students at a select few prestigious colleges and universities. Though Facebook quickly expanded access to a number of other schools (mine was in this wave), there’s no denying that the network’s zeitgeist was at its outset primarily one of exclusivity. This was a time when a friend request meant something – if not much – and a certain level of Facebook exuberance was viewed as ostentatious or vain. The point was as much to show with whom you didn’t associate as much as it showed with whom you did, and the etiquette seemed to flow seamlessly from many of the same W.A.S.P. sensibilities that ruled the culture of the elite academic institutions where Facebook first gained popularity. Good or bad, this was the culture of Facebook’s first generation.
But this exclusivity and respect for proprietary information stood in sharp contrast to the exponentially building momentum of digital democracy, and Facebook opened its doors, starting with universal college access before moving to add high schools and finally allowing registration to anyone with an email address. With an eye – or perhaps in service – to the web’s proliferation of data and democratizing of content generation, Facebook moved to facilitate the easy sharing of information and outsourced feature development to the general public. And with each new feature and application, the site steadily underwent a Ripleyesque transformation, leaving the original Facebook dead and disfigured and offering as a replacement something at once familiar and totally unrecognizable to its original denizens.
Of course, the site’s aesthetic remains more or less intact, but there’s little metaphysical difference between today’s Facebook and yesterday’s MySpace (which before it became a powerful promotional tool, approximated something of a digital leper colony to Facebook’s first generation). The change has been slow and steady, so unlike the impotent uproar when Facebook first introduced the News Feed, this latest shift seems to have been met with resigned apathy.
“It’s slowly going the way of MySpace,” comments one friend. “I’m just so used to it changing,” says another. Facebook, to its first generation of users, has jumped the shark. But the question is whether this experience is universal.
Those who joined Facebook after its expansion have no sentimentality for the days before status updates, cumbersome applications, or the perils of accepting friend requests from employers. To them – which is to say a huge number of Facebook’s users – the current tilt towards broadcast and inclusiveness is not social media’s bug, but rather it’s feature. Certainly, as blogging has grown from an outlet for emotionally saddled teenagers toward a more mature form of media and services like Twitter continue to balloon, the evidence supporting the popularity of personal broadcast seems to speak for itself.
Facebook then, far from being a revolutionary service, is quite simply a manifestation of the internet’s broader trajectory towards access to data and means of production. If Facebook’s original users move on (unlikely) or resist the necessary give and take of the freedom of information, it is not Facebook who will have been left behind.