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Research Report by Katrina Kimport
(created 3/31/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Online reading and society; Social Networking

Original Object for Study description

First launched in February of 2004, Facebook.com (initially known as Thefacebook.com) is an online networking website that allows users to create their own profiles and link to and view the profiles of others. Facebook is unique in that its online communities are based on offline university communities and membership is restricted to users with a .edu email address.

Facebook is the second fastest growing website and is particularly popular with young adults currently enrolled in or recently graduated from college. Because Facebook users are organized by college affiliation, users have a clear offline presence. The site thus offers the opportunity to investigate the relationship between offline communities and their online counterparts.

Facebook was developed by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as the online version of Harvard’s annually produced student directory book. The offline version contains photos and contact information for all enrolled students. The online form likewise contains photos and personal information but, unlike the offline directory, each profile is created and maintained by the user.

Membership on Facebook is free, but it is restricted to individuals with college-issued email addresses (i.e., those that end in “.edu”). In their profiles, users can post photos, list the classes they are enrolled in, and link to the profiles of their friends. Members can send each other messages and form user groups around topics of their choosing.

Initially, members were restricted to viewing only the profiles of others at their institution, unless they received explicit permission from individual users at other institutions. These restrictions have been somewhat relaxed such that users can view a far larger range of profiles. Members may, however, set their own privacy level, restricting views of their profile to only their linked friends, to only those at their institutions, or to only other undergraduates, for example. Users also have the option of making two separate profiles: a full version available to fewer users and a limited version, with less information, that is available to a larger audience.

Within four months of its founding, Facebook had launched at over forty schools and within eight months, the site had over a quarter of a million registered users. Facebook now has about seven and a half million users and has expanded to universities in the UK, Mexico, and Australia.

Facebook allows users to maintain their profiles after graduation (often with an alumni office-generated “.edu” address). It also grants membership to people with emails from certain approved companies. Recently, Facebook began offering the service to high schools, although few high schools grant all students email addresses.

Facebook is big business. Now located in Palo Alto, California, the company employs hundreds of people and has been rumored to have received buy-out offers from Google and Microsoft. Because of its page views, Facebook charges among the highest advertising rates on the web; Facebook is able to tailor ads to the profiles of its users, offering advertisers a targeted audience.

Research Context:

Facebook is the second fastest growing website (behind MySpace.com) and has the seventh highest number of page views. In addition, the site is highly popular with current users. They spend an average of 20 minutes on the site each day and two-thirds log on at least once a day. Further, the site is popular with a very specific demographic–young adults, enrolled in college–offering the opportunity for insight into this group’s online behavior.

Unlike other online networking sites, Facebook members have an offline, physical presence communicated in their profiles via their university affiliations and even their class enrollment. It serves as an example of a localized online community that co-exists with a defined offline community (i.e., a class or a university).

Finally, the grassroots development and subsequent success of the site points to the importance of novelty and entrepreneurship in building web content. The Facebook founder noted only days after launching his site that the university had been intending to migrate their facebook online, but that he’d done in just a few days of intense coding what they’d been thus far unable to produce.

Technical Analysis:
Facebook is a member-only site where users must register and provide a password for entry. Each user has his or her own page with a personal profile the user writes that can include photos and other information. Within the site, pages are restricted such that each user can view only profiles to which he or she has been granted access.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
Facebook is an example of a social network that is dependent not only on the existence of the Internet, but on the existence of offline communities with formally established, individual ties to the Internet (in the form of email addresses). It offers the Transliteracies Project the opportunity to investigate the interplay between localized online communities and their offline counterparts in a variety of ways:

1)It helps trace how the Internet can support and solidify offline social networks, especially temporary ones such a university class communities that exist for only a term.
2)It offers the opportunity to see how online groups migrate into offline groups, given that some groups are built online and only after doing so meet in person.
3)Facebook is an example of how the Internet can be used to regulate offline behavior. At Boston College, a keg party was broken up by campus police who had learned of its existence after it was announced on Facebook.

Facebook also poses an interesting question of how we determine social network usefulness. Generally, a network is assumed more useful, the more nodes it has. In this strict sense, Facebook is far less useful than MySpace because of its substantially smaller membership. Yet because of the restrictions on membership and the explicit links to the offline world, Facebook users tend to post more personal information, including cell phone numbers, than users of MySpace. Additionally, MySpace and other online networking sites have been plagued by users falsely representing themselves, a problem that has not afflicted Facebook in part because of its .edu email address requirement. Both of these occurrences point to the importance of evaluating the quality of information in an online network rather than the sheer quantity when considering network usefulness.

Finally, this website offers the opportunity to think about the age-specific use of online networks. Thus far, Facebook has been relatively unsuccessful in the high school market, even as it continues to thrive at the college level. This suggests the importance of considering the profile of users, particularly their age, when analyzing online behavior.

Resources for Further Study:

  • John Cassidy, “Me Media; The Online Life,” The New Yorker, May 15, 2006. pp. 50-59.

  tl, 09.01.06

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