Contemporary history has seen the transformation from a primarily industrialized modern American society to a fluid and fast paced information era that now encompasses virtually every aspect of our lives.  Understandings in production and consumption, exchange and ownership of information, and even our fundamental considerations and perceptions of communication have all experienced paradigm shifts with the coming of the information age.  Globalization has become the hallmark of our time in regards to economics, social influences, power, and more.  The availability and specialization of information has skyrocketed with the introduction of the internet and its accompanying dissident nature.  Just as people of the past came to depend and thrive upon electricity, now the world embraces instant and easy connection – for most in America computers have become synonymous with internet and many other devices, such as cell phones, TV’s, and mp3 players have begun to follow suit.  The new forms of media embedded in and enabled by the internet open up a whole new world of innovative intricacies and articulations of thought.  More than ever the heterogeneity evident in the American (and international) social mesh calls for new potentially revolutionary and anti-disciplinary models of epistemology and analysis.
Just as computer mediated communication has altered the fabric of our social context, revolutions and evolutions within the world of the web have exerted their own transformations in kind. Social networking services (SNS) are social software systems focused on building and verifying online social networks, and though their roots are independent to the internet, they have taken on a new form and life far beyond their previous existence outside of the electronic realm.  Internet based systems of SNS have fundamentally reframed and reformed computer mediated communication (CMC), interaction, and agency.  Studies have shown that these tools offer numerous benefits for work place and social contexts (Wellman and Haythornthwaite 1998) and have evolved and adapted into every-day life as extensions of both social and personal communications, expression, and relationships (Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007).  Indeed with the coming of Web 2.0, what the era hoped to be, most scholars now agree that the internet and CMC have reached a point of ubiquity and merit increasingly intricate studies (Lievrouw 2004, Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007).
The resultant impact of SNS on the high school and college student population is nothing short of monumental.  Students have grown up socialized by a world shaped by the internet and brandish native and latent intuitions and understandings of computer technology unknown to previous generations.  Our age also seems progressively more dominated by multitasking and thus we are challenged by perceptibly limited time for face to face interactions.  Online meeting places and social networks facilitate opportunities for the development of personal relationships beyond their offline counterparts.  Research has found that students are often more comfortable in self-disclosure and intimate inquiries as a result of the uncertainty reduction strategies endowed by the SNS constituency (Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds 2007, CITE psych article!). Social networks have found success as a result of their cascading usages - network effects combined with almost fully saturated college student populations enable users to present and investigate virtual profiles, browse and post pictures, observe, join, and create events and groups, post journals and multimedia, view the latest news on their friends’ online lives and link into a myriad of advertising and marketing.  What’s more is that SNS systems represent opportunities for entertainment, social movements, new forms of expression, enhancement of social capital and previously unknown thresholds of information. With this in mind, we turn to


Arguably one of the two most influential SNS websites on the internet, is a comprehensive and encompassing clustering of networks based on universities and colleges, high schools, work places and companies and geographic areas.  These membership networks are preserved independent of one another but based on the same interface and systems of interaction – with intersectionality between each possible but with crucial and intentional barriers to access in between.  Started originally in February of 2004 Facebook hit a tipping point in the late summer of that year with the introduction of groups and public posting ‘walls.’  Collectively Facebook now claims over 18 million members with thousands of colleges and remains one of the fastest growing websites on the internet (Cassidy 2005, Abram 2007).  Sources vary but membership saturation ranges between 85% and 94% (Golder, Wilkinson, and Huberman 2006, Arrington 2005, Ellison, Steinfeld, and Lampe 2005) and my last count for the UIllinois Network placed a 92% membership rate among the undergraduate population. 1  Facebook ranks as one of the most visited websites on the internet, with sources claiming as high as the 6th or 7th most visited based on page views, and they now account for about 1% of all time spent on the internet (Cassidy 2005, Abram 2007).  More than 60% of members log in daily and many sign on multiple times a day (Arrington 2005).  In the span of 2 years - from 2005 to 2007 - the user count has grown nearly 5 times in size, and the website boasts 30 billion page views and 600 million searches per month (Abram 2007).  UIllinois is by comparison relatively large, ranking in at over 51,000 profiles2.  Facebook is the most viewed website by both females (69%) and males (56%) ages 17-25 in the United States, surpassing (eMarketer Survey 2007).  Preliminary studies have answered the critique that simple membership and login rates are inaccurate predictors of SNS popularity by measuring the use of the Facebook message system and finding intense patterned activity (Golder, Wilkinson, and Huberman 2005).  The study further illuminated the regularities of time use of college students and their respective social lives.  The website shows no sign of slowing down nor diminishing in influence over the youthful internet user population. 

Origins of Success

Facebook’s omnipresence among college students has spread to high schoolers and now contents to strongly influence the young adults of the post-college world as networks extend into geographical areas and work place environments. Its success relative to popularity relative to Friendster and LinkedIn (and in some ways, MySpace) seems to be due to three primary factors: closed networking organization built on pre-existing community, concise and consistent but malleable interface and features, and a permanently beta nature. 
Facebook is built on separate but similar networks capable of limited interaction with one another.  The original foundation of the site is supported by college networks – during Facebook’s formation period only people with valid university email addresses could acquire an account.  This formulated a perceived safer environment, dominated by undergraduates and few random unknown outsiders. The community for the connections online was already in place offline and students experiencing the transformation of college want and need to meet new people.  Combined with the consequential trust and thus high level of information exposure Facebook achieved the environment it is today.  This is no mere trivial accomplishment.  Studies have begun to surface lending support to claims of a trust-filled network showing that compared to traditional methods of identity exposure Facebook “fosters a more subjective and holistic disclosure of identity information” (Stutzman 2005).  Facebook allows for a sort of variation in levels of friendship, and the distinctions become all the more acute because on the same college campus one has a span of friends from best to barely met.  Other SNS such as LinkedIn, Friendster, or even MySpace have contacts – in many cases the vast majority of “friends” on these networks have no consistent face-to-face relations with the person who “friended” them.  As Doug Sherrets explains on the blog Minority Rapport (2005) “getting to the source of strength in these relationships is critical to expanding the usefulness of this network and yet another dimension… I see Facebook as making these relationships public and effectively weaving a whole new web of stickiness driven by value created through connecting people in dynamic ways.”  Later high school networks were added as students learned of the site from their older siblings and wished to become involved – indeed many students now meet each other even before coming to college by joining their college Facebook network as soon as they get their new email.  As the Facebook generation moved on to graduate the team introduced geographical and workplace networks so that people could stay in touch in their lives post-college.  All of these social networks were already in place – Facebook just extends them in a somewhat exclusive and thus safer way. The power and comprehensive trust of Facebook as well as its sustainability is based on real world boundaries (college campuses, high schools, work places) and boasts greater possibilities as a result of a higher “friends of friends” quotient (a user’s face to face friends of friends) (Sherrets 2005).  The best calculated average mean per-user friend count for Facebook users in general stands at about 144, with a median of roughly 180 (Golder, Wilkinson, and Huberman 2005).  The numbers drop dramatically once you pass the 250, but if one considers these numbers for a moment they are confronted by the immensity of the proportion.  The average Facebook user has a social network of strong, moderate, and weak ties of over one hundred people.  Everyone is connected – to Facebook and each other.  Kevin Bacon had better look out.  The closed network system (person from network A cannot automatically view person from network B) renders a perceptibly secure environment and seals the deal to ensuring Facebook’s success.  The benefits of the pre-existing community networks behind Facebook are just the biggest underpinning, others are at play too.
The contemporary youth population tends to access the internet in bursts and with multi-tasking – little time is spent in one specific place and many users perform more than one task at once, even without thinking about.  The standard seems to be a music player, instant messaging program and an internet browser (or some other ‘primary attention’ program) up and running all of the time.  This kind of mentality impacts the way users view and access websites and thus many effective websites for this audience are geared to be feature driven and interactive.  Facebook fulfills this need better than most – virtually every feature it contains is interactive in some manner and changeable.  New features are added monthly and even users who find themselves bored quickly can always find something new – be it a feature introduced by the Facebook team or just an update to a friend’s profile or a new event.  MySpace and other sites can claim the feature driven functionality too, however none of these sites have a great deal of ease of use built into their design.  MySpace in particular is infamous for its customization – which placed in the hands of uneducated, unskilled and often untalented users results in messy pages with poor design, colors, and organization of information.  Facebook’s interface, for the most part stays consistent, while its features do not.
Without getting too far ahead with theory, Facebook’s concept design is predicated on a permanently beta nature.  This means that not only does it change, but it has always been changing, will always be changing, and this change achieves trends and flows.  Every user profile, every group, every network is in a constant flux and this context creates a service that is not only natural to its users, but desired.  Users are in many ways as in control as the system creators and moderators – the exact usages of the site are not defined and this is on purpose for it is crucial to the network success.  The environment stands in stark contrast to the consistent and hegemonic forms of old media and marketplace dominated by hierarchy.  I will explain this more extensively as it relates to Science and Technology Studies theory later.
Besides the epic transformative nature of Facebook its potential worth is nothing to balk at. As of May 2005 Facebook had raised 12.7 million dollars in capital with Accel Partners (Accel Partners website 2005) and in March of 2006 Business week reported on negotiations for a possible Viacom acquisition of the site. According to the article, the company declined an offer of $750 million and it was rumored that the asking price was as high as $2 billion (Rosenbush 2006).  Beyond this the data set presents an untold potential for authentic and elaborate detail on college students habits, interests, and marketability.  The information garnered from analysis of Facebook is superior to what any case study or survey on the college student population could pray to collect.  As the social science realm comes to grips with the importance of the internet likely Facebook will become a common pool of observation data.

Substantive Influence

One only need to talk to any given undergraduate student to unearth tangible substantive cultural impacts.  Everyone has a story, or in all likelihood a whole manifold of experiences, narratives, and interpretations of the system.  If language is a signifier of pertinence, then just like to Google and to Photoshop have become verbs in the vernacular, “to Friend” has aspired to this status as well in regards to Facebook.  Students have forged extensive investments in the system and many have developed dependencies in varying forms – social capital, extension of personality, community awareness and involvement, initiation and continuance of both personal relationships as well as group membership.  Indeed, many students are learning to check their Facebook messages as much as Email and update their Facebook status almost as much as they do with instant messenger away messages.  The high usage patterns are a logical consequence of the bridge between offline and online connections (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006) and really the relationship between the two previously largely separated worlds has become strongly coproducing.
The potential avenues for influence are numerous, especially among US youth populations.  Outside of science and technology studies sociology tends to consider internet technology as peripheral or incongruous.  Education and research have a great deal to learn from the incarnations, uses, interpretations and social movements of new media.  As sociology concerns itself with informing people of the shifts of the future we ought to pay attention to the influences Facebook will have – especially as it becomes nominally interlaced into the work place.  Facebook extends the interactions of the face to face world and virtually everything encapsulated in it, including the effects and impacts of the many social groups and analytic categories traditionally of concern to sociology – gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, ability and mental illness, class and geography, age and education, and countless others.  The ramifications of this claim insinuate that examination of Facebook ought to intersect with all subsets and variations of sociology.
The purpose of my research is thus a natural result a conglomeration of agendas and interests.  My role as a participant in the system from nearly the beginning bestows me with the typical benefits of a members’ experience – I’ve been immersed in both the undergraduate student population as well as an avid Facebook user.  Without even thinking about it I wield an array of understandings of indigenous meanings and can aptly enact as a near ethnographer in an online world.  As a researcher I have a definitive and distinct interest in authentically describing and understanding the social systems of Facebook, including their benefits and drawbacks, egalitarian aspects and disparities, and other extensions of the face to face world. With my research I hope inform a sometimes undereducated and misled populace and ultimately lead to use of Facebook for social action and social change.

[1] Collected April of 2006.  Facebook search queries pass data in the URL query strings – recognizing which variables correspond to each parameter I could set the page display range at a higher index manually, allowing myself to see the last profiles available on the network and gaining an accurate count of UIUC Facebook member profiles.  I performed a search for all students listed as undergraduates and divided this number by the total number of undergraduate students listed on the quick facts page on the UIUC home site.  Accounting for a 1% inflation rate for students with multiple profiles, drop-outs, transfers, graduated members (at the time a very small number), I came up with the estimate of 92% which I first documented in Social Computing Phenomena, a paper written in May of 2006.  Facebook later altered search results to display only the first 500 of a given category – I have yet to determine a new inclusive method of counting.

[2] UIllinois statistics page on May 2007