Wrong happens. For years, I penned predictions that Facebook would prove to be a passing fad, supplanted sooner or later by the next happening thing. As a site, it seemed too riddled with annoyances and grievances to last forever.
So much for that. There are times when you're wrong and the wrong slips quietly into the ether. Then there are times when you're wrong, and the wrong tracks you down and sends you a press release.
"We're so excited to share with you that Facebook proudly announced today 500 million people around the world actively use Facebook," read the corporate missive that rolled in last week. I stared at it with a kind of blank resignation.
"Half a billion is a nice number," it continued, "but what matters are all of the stories people share about the impact their connections have on their lives."
"Stories" are what Facebook would really like to be talking about right now. But let's pause to consider that nice number. That's more people than there are in North America. That's a sizable fraction of the number of people living on this planet. It is you and me and everyone we know. Were it not for that number, we'd still be talking about Facebook's latest privacy blunder, or whether it's turning the kids into sociopathic vegetables, or why, just a month ago, people were organizing quit-Facebook protests.
All of which leads to a stumper. You'd presume that free social networks would be sites that users visit because they're enjoyable. How, then, can a service that's so unsympathetic to so many people, that irritates so many users in so many ways, that causes so many governments to fight it and privacy advocates to loathe it, become so outrageously large? How has Facebook flourished, despite itself?
The reasons people chafe at Facebook are well-documented. Its user interface changes with maddening regularity. It has made serious privacy blunders, altering the way it shows and hides information and pushing an agenda of seeing users share more about themselves. It's increasingly full of spammy, lousy games like FarmVille, and intrusive advertising.
(On the advertising front, nobody can seem to decide what's worse: ads that are disturbingly well-targeted to your personal information; or ads that are so off-base about your age, sex, gender, interests and whether or not you'd want to apply for a criminal pardon that the results are kind of insulting. Poor Facebook can't win.)
And on a more fundamental level, it's hard to be unreservedly supportive of something so huge, so tentacled, so hungry for data, kind of like a blue Kraken owned by a pimply billionaire.
I might have assumed that I was just a curmudgeon, living in a bubble of curmudgeons, but the empirical evidence is mounting that Facebook irks even its own. Last week, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a venerable consumer survey, for the first time published findings on consumer satisfaction with social networks. Facebook scored remarkably poorly, squeaking in at the bottom of the category, just ahead of MySpace, which is about as pleasant as a monster-truck rally.
"This puts Facebook in the bottom 5 per cent of all measured private-sector companies, and in the same range as airlines and cable companies, two perennially low-scoring industries with terrible customer satisfaction," reported the ACSI.
Airlines and cable companies!
This doesn't square with the mythologies that have grown around social networks, which usually tell us that these websites have personality-altering, life-changing properties that transform formerly mild-mannered citizens into hyperconnected life-sharers. Right now, Facebook is trying to turn this milestone into a public-relations exercise about the stories of transformation that Facebook has brought about.
This misses the point. The simple fact is that - like an airline or a cable company - Facebook is useful.
Every moral panic about the nature of friendship and the loss of privacy distracts from the real reason Facebook persists. It's not that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg owns the social graph - the master list of who's friends with whom. It's that he owns the phone book.
It's not flashy, but Facebook is succeeding at being precisely what it says it is - a face book, a directory of people, a social utility that people can use to look each other up. It came along at just the right time, and has benefited from the decline of the traditional phone book, and the rise of cellphones, whose numbers aren't publicly listed.
If Facebook is a fad, it's a fad like an ice age - it usually goes out of style, but has a good run at it. Users' appetites for Facebook-style interaction come and go, but the need for a practical way to track people down remains constant. To its credit, Facebook built that tool. Its other attributes make it engaging, mysterious, infuriating, occasionally addictive, lurid, and yes, world-changing.
But it's its utility that makes it indispensible - and that's why it's not going anywhere soon.