Facebook makes me cringe

But it's still the most profound Internet innovation since eBay, says Fortune's Brent Schlender.

By Brent Schlender, Fortune editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- I'm one of those early-adopter types, for better or for worse. I bought an IBM PC the week it went on sale in August 1981, ordered my first CD online a few years after that, and by the early 1990s was pestering everyone I knew to get an MCI Mail account. iMac, iTunes, iPod - I was right there, adopting early and often. I also was a proud and enthusiastic user of a Newton MessagePad for about a week.

For the longest time, however, I just didn't get Facebook, the hot social-networking site and time sink. I didn't have a clue what the purpose of being "poked" was and, frankly, didn't like the sound of it. (It's a silly Facebook thing where you click a button and a line pops up on the other person's page saying they've been poked. Like I said, silly.)

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The notion of having my friends write public messages on my "wall" seemed like nothing more than an invitation to post obnoxious graffiti at my expense, which would get old in about five minutes.

And I found it oddly byzantine how, when you type a personal message to one of your Facebook pals, the service then generates a notification e-mail that shows up in your friend's e-mail box letting him know that a message is waiting and instructing him to go to his web browser and sign in to Facebook if he wants to actually read it. How is this Rube Goldberg approach an improvement over plain old e-mail or texting or IMing or a simple phone call? In a word: Harrumph.

But the other day the light bulb finally went on - sort of. Greta, my 23-year-old daughter, who lives and works in Nicaragua, was explaining to me (in an old-fashioned e-mail) how she spends a lot of her idle time using Facebook to monitor the diaspora of her college friends. For her it's an antidote to homesickness and culture shock, because it helps her preserve that special intimacy that comes only from knowing every twist and turn in the lives of her best friends, no matter where they are or where she is.

My other daughter, Fernanda, who just turned 22 and has been hanging around home for the past few weeks, is another big fan, although she admits that for her Facebook is primarily a "tool for procrastination."

Now that is an activity I can relate to. So I asked her to show me her favorite ways to waste time. There's a Scrabble game that you can play with other Facebook friends, stretching it out over days if you like. Another good one: a rudimentary doodling program called Graffiti that lets you play back the whole creative process of making your illustration from start to finish like an animation. You can spend hours fussing over something that looks like a fourth-grader's art project, and then watch it unfold before your eyes over and over again in seconds. Why didn't we have something like that back in the good old days of bongs and brownies?

I'm 53 and somewhat unsociable, so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. But it's not just me: Once people have demanding jobs and marriages and kids, their social lives narrow a lot, and they just don't have the mental bandwidth or time to stay current with so many friends.

Despite all that, Facebook could be the most profound Internet innovation to come along since eBay (Charts, Fortune 500) revolutionized cleaning out your attic. (Another early adoption: I actually bought a PEZ dispenser on eBay in 1998 and sold my Apple Newton there a year later.)

When adopted by companies and social organizations and other controlled environments, Facebook and the applications that can be built upon it could be, of all things, a management tool. It could be a friendly means to reinforce corporate or institutional culture; a method to keep far-flung telecommuters in the fold and in the know; and a digital water cooler for trading the useful gossip that sometimes lubricates a work group.

And when it comes to helping employees make the most of their benefits and perks, a Facebook system could provide the infrastructure for the mother of all HR systems.

In other words, it's not just Facebook's potential as an advertising platform that has Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) and Google (Charts, Fortune 500) interested in buying a stake. More than MySpace, LinkedIn, or any other social network, Facebook is what people were talking about ten years ago when they had this fuzzy notion of "intranets" that would be the centripetal force holding 21st-century organizations together.

The vast majority of us - hell, even me - are social animals in the workplace. We have to be. And we could all use a little nudge... sorry, poke now and then.  Top of page