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Twelve Years Later, Life After Facebook


The Washington Post - Yanan Wang

Just over a decade ago, students at a smattering of elite colleges were debating the merits of a new website called It was all the rage at Harvard, naturally, where it had been launched by a sophomore who “literally” made it in a week.

“I’m just like a little kid,” Mark Zuckerberg told the Harvard Crimson in 2004. “I get bored easily and computers excite me. Those are the two driving factors here.”

The other students on campus were pretty excited, too. Within weeks of going online, the site offering a “visualization of your social network” gained thousands of users, expanding quickly to other schools.

At Columbia, where there was already a social media platform called “CUCommunity” (later restyled to “Campus Network”), there was the sense that The Facebook was trying to usurp a preexisting tool. In an April 2004 column, one student accused Zuckerberg of launching his website out of jealousy.

“Thanks to CUCommunity, our undergraduate body is closer than ever before,” the piece said. “But the cowards in Cambridge just couldn’t accept that. They had to create They had to challenge us.”

The Harvard Crimson shot back with an editorial called “Manifest Destiny, Facebook Style”:

“Harvard students have a duty to help those at lesser schools - like Columbia and Yale - break free from social life in the social slow lane and bring them up to speed on the superhighway of cool. Clubs, bars, movies moving - all passe, bona fide faux pas in the 21st-century etiquette. It seems as though everyone has forgotten what it means to ‘have fun.’ While students at Dartmouth, Columbia, even Yale (if one can even call them students) drink beer and frequent parties, we ask of them: have you ever confirmed a friend? Have you ever visualized your friend network? Have you ever been poked?”

To every rival school’s chagrin, the Harvard Crimson was right. Stanford students took to it quickly, as nearly 3,000 students registered for The Facebook within a week. Come September of 2004, it appeared that even Columbia was admitting defeat: an article on the front page explored how social rites were changing “in the age of The Facebook.”

The rest, as we all know, is history. (Alternatively, it is an Oscar-winning film directed by David Fincher.)

Facebook turned 12 on Thursday. It celebrated this milestone with a self-proclaimed holiday and a blog post reporting that people are more connected than they have ever been before.

On “Friends Day,” the data scientists at Facebook announced that we are all a lot closer to one another than we thought.

The adage that there exist only “six degrees of separation” between everyone in the world has been around for at least the last century, when the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy proposed the notion in a short story called “Chains.” Then in the 60s, scientists Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers corroborated the idea that everyone in the world is but six short social connections away from everyone else in the world. It’s since been tested repeatedly, with mixed results.

More recently, the theory has evolved into games like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a way for celebrities to score their status in the entertainment industry based on their distance from the actor-musician.

Now, it appears that active Facebook users are nearly twice as connected as they once (supposedly) were.

“Playwrights, poets, and scientists have proposed that everyone on the planet is connected to everyone else by six other people,” the blog post read. “In honor of Friends Day, we’ve crunched the Facebook friend graph and determined that the number is 3.57. Each person in the world (at least among the 1.59 billion people active on Facebook) is connected to every other person by an average of three and a half other people.”

The blog post also uses an algorithm to calculate each user’s individual degrees of separation. Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, is separated from the rest of the Facebook universe by a meager 2.92 degrees.

Of course, this measurement ignores the nearly 6 billion other living humans who don’t use the site, and hence can’t truly overturn the long held belief that it’s six degrees of separation that governs for most of humanity. But it does raise the question of how the social lives of those 1.59 billion have changed since they joined the site.

Facebook users contemplated this through the hashtag #BeforeFacebookI, and the recollections ranged from humorous to resentful to truly thought-provoking.

“#BeforeFacebookI got a phone call when someone close to me passed away and when something cool was going to happen,” a Michelle Orack wrote. “Before fb I didn’t realize how big of a scale of insane and idiotic people there are in the world. I liked people and I didn’t have a filter or have to worry about who I offended ... On a positive note, I have gained some pretty great friends near and far ...”

“BeforeFacebookI had to remember everyone’s birthday,” wrote a Debbie Mitchell, “now I don’t have to. Thank You FB!”

At least one user felt that Facebook had made him more enlightened.

“#BeforeFacebookI went unchallenged in many of my assumptions about class, race, gender, prejudice, and identity,” a Dan Jones wrote. “I did not know many of my friends as well as I do now. . .I was a less interesting person, and a less curious one.”

But others feel that they’re now exposed to more than they care to know. A 2013 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 36 percent of Facebook users “strongly dislike” oversharing.

“The level of navel-gazing that defines our lives today seems to reach new peaks daily,” Huffington Post columnist Ann Brenoff lamented in 2012. “The irony, of course, is that we practice this form of narcissism with the insistence that we are sharing. News flash: It is not sharing when you post a photo on Facebook of the eggs you ate for breakfast.”

Yanan Wang is a Washington Post reporter on the Morning Mix team.


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