You've been hearing a lot about Facebook lately. Not, mercifully, in the "there's this crazy social-networking thing the kids are doing" sense. Rather in the "oh my God, you've got to get on it, too" sense.
One year after taking down its "students only" shingle, Facebook is indeed huge with a subset of the professional, grownup world. Bully for all the forty- and fiftysomethings hopping on the (groaning and overloaded) social-networking bandwagon. And bully for Facebook, which has gotten months of coverage and word-of-mouth advertising from its newfound status as the social network a well-scrubbed, middle-aged guy in a suit can participate in without seeming creepy.
As for me—and scores of other under-40s with profiles on multiple social networks—I'm belatedly and grudgingly starting a Facebook page. Grudgingly, because Facebook now combines aspects of Saturday night's MySpace with Monday morning's LinkedIn. And you don't have to be a new grad whose pages are lousy with beer-pong photos to feel less than thrilled about the professionalization of your friend-space.
THIS NOTION IS, OF COURSE, incredibly uncharitable. Friendship is a rich and many splendored thing. One's friends should include folks from all walks of life, from those in bespoke suits to the tattooed. One should never be uncomfortable mixing one's friends, etc. But, hell, sometimes one is. I've got a good friend, an ex-bandmate, who almost stopped talking to me for having lunch with Rupert Murdoch. It's quite entertaining to think how he'd react to meeting some people I like who work in relatively exalted positions at News Corp. (NWS )
It's true there's no shortage of the real-job crowd on MySpace (NWS ), which continues to draw a geometrically larger audience than Facebook. But MySpace had time to mushroom into a defined cultural phenomenon before the grownups entered en masse. By the time they did, MySpace had established its lodestones, which were decidedly youthful. Chief among them: music and hooking up. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) That the vibe of MySpace was well in place when the mainstream came to visit explains why the spate of articles in recent weeks on the etiquette of dealing with your boss's request to be "friends" happened only when Facebook hit critical mass with the professional set. It was a blanker slate—for grownups, at least—and so those early adopters made it safe for others of their ilk. (If gang members had overrun Facebook once the doors were thrown open, this issue would not be coming up. It would be kind of funny, though.)
MySpace launched with a brilliant bit of branding, billing itself as "a place for friends." Because your friends are the people to whom you don't have to explain yourself. As long as social networks remained focused on a few well-defined societal subsets—I'm sure some veterans of the '80s and '90s indie-rock underground did not join Friendster in 2003, I just can't think of any right now—you didn't have to explain much of anything to anyone. You didn't have to explain your more colorful old friends, the ones pursuing batik or semi-pro skateboarding, to your clueless, business-casual office frenemies. Now that social networking has grown up—or grown out, now that Facebook attracts practically everyone—you will. And vice versa, come to think of it, since the batik types have yet to cotton to explicit business-oriented social nets like LinkedIn.
This makes me sound like a character in a John Hughes movie getting all angsty over the high school cafeteria seating chart, I suppose, but no one can deny that the world of work is the high school cafeteria all over again. (For the rest of our lives.) At any rate, I hereby make the time commitment to join yet another social network—my fourth—and to commingle whatever of my social spheres I find there. If I don't respond to your friend request, it's only because I (cough) misplaced it around here somewhere.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
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By Jon Fine