Facebook’s primacy legacy is not its site and service, but the profound changes it drove in Internet behavior. Facebook made Internet users comfortable with using their real names and bringing their real lives onto the Internet. Whether using real names is good or bad in certain situations, this was a real leap.
Non-anonymous communication, while not always optimal, expanded active usage by opening up content creation to personal topics. The fact that your kid is walking is not interesting when posted anonymously, but it is more likely to be interesting when directed to your friends or those with a personal interest. Even if it’s not interesting (even your friends don’t care that you are eating cereal right now), the fact that a user has an audience encourages them to broadcast themselves. Many people, other than flamers and spammers, have a higher bar when posting anonymously: do I have something profound to say? People have fewer profound than personal moments, so there is less interest and raw material to post.
Before social, people used handles that masked their identity. Friendster opened the door to using real names, but my experience with the user base was caution: put your highly curated self up and control the “testimonials” others posted about you. The effect was more like a static, controlled photo album than a real-time, unedited feed.
Facebook modified this, taking it to new level. How? It found the group of people – college students – most comfortable with having their names associated with a real-time lens into their lives, whether through their own status updates and their friends comments. In doing so, it became compelling. Watching how much fun the college kids were having, the rest of us jumped in, in many cases more cautiously, by exercising a little more judgment about what we posted, but being more open than ever before. By starting with a group that “didn’t know better” or “didn’t care,” it pulled the rest of us in. Indeed, Facebook claims over 750 million users globally (of 7 billion total population). Starting with college communities was Zuckerberg’s genius and luck.
Now, we are all much more open. Whether it’s Twitter, FourSquare, Disqus, there is a greater willingness to be ourselves. This is doubly important because this greater willingness now coincides with the smart phone revolution, which has made it so much easier to broadcast ourselves in so many ways.