October 6th, 2007

Facebook’s Core College Student Users Laugh At Attempts To Use It For Business


When I argued that Facebook is NOT for business, that assertion was roundly dismissed by Facebook’s tech fan club, determined to prove (with Mark Zuckerberg gleefully rooting them on) that Facebook is a serious business tool. In today’s NYT, a more authoritative voice weighs in — one of Facebook’s original college student users, who speaks up on behalf of all of Facebook’s core users — and it seems that joke’s on everyone who’s taking Facebook so seriously:

Facebook did not become popular because it was a functional tool — after all, most college students live in close quarters with the majority of their Facebook friends and have no need for social networking. Instead, we log into the Web site because it’s entertaining to watch a constantly evolving narrative starring the other people in the library.

I’ve always thought of Facebook as online community theater. In costumes we customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.

It’s all comedy: making one another laugh matters more than providing useful updates about ourselves, which is why entirely phony profiles were all the rage before the grown-ups signed in. One friend announced her status as In a Relationship with Chinese Food, whose profile picture was a carry-out box and whose personal information personified the cuisine of China.


For young people, Facebook is yet another form of escapism; we can turn our lives into stage dramas and relationships into comedy routines. Make believe is not part of the postgraduate Facebook user’s agenda. As more and more older users try to turn Facebook into a legitimate social reference guide, younger people may follow suit and stop treating it as a circus ring. But let’s hope not.

The issue here is not whether online social networking has any high-value business applications — it clearly has, because business thrives on human connections and networks — it’s all about WHO you know.

No, the issue is that so many “adults” fell for Facebook’s ploy to convince them that they should adopt a toy built for college kids as a platform for their professional networking objectives. The deep irony is that Facebook’s core student users — for whom the application was and still is designed — are laughing at the grown-ups as they bumble around the playground, trying to hold meetings in the sandbox and forge new business relationships on the swings.

What Facebook has demonstrated is that professionals are eager to bring their business networking online — and by remaining a playground, Facebook has left open a golden opportunity for social networks tailored to specific professional communities to open their doors to all the “adult” Facebook users still trying to figure out whether they should “poke” their business contacts or doodle on their walls — an opportunity to create a conference hall rather than a playground.

Comments (34 Responses so far)

  1. Finally, someone else picked this up. This “Facebook as a business suite” meme was getting a bit out of hand.

  2. It will be interesting to see how Facebook evolves as more of the core college users join the workforce.

    Personally, I don’t see why it can’t be many things to many people. Everyone’s network is different.

  3. I agree with Ed. It’s not about who uses it, it’s about the tool. Take for instance the various chatting tools like the MSN Messenger or Skype or the Yahoo! Messenger — they are used by both teenagers and professionals. I’ve rarely used my messengers for chitchat, I’ve only used them for business and they’ve helped me a lot for many years.

  4. With all due respect, Scott, you’re being obtuse. Why can’t Facebook be both a place for college kids to have fun as well as a business tool for adults?

  5. That makes a very good point actually.

    It’s like reality television – it’s not really reality because you know the cameras are on you.

    Same situation with Facebook: your behaviour is dictated by the fact that you know people are watching your every move.

  6. Well all you college kids living in neverland are going to grow up and have to eventually get real jobs in the real world and then what will become of your beloved Facebook. I’m sure for a lot of you it will become a business networking tool as well a social tool. I just love people who take ownership of a site that they had no part in creating. Facebook can be whatever you want it to be, there are no rules.

  7. interesting use of one data point to provide the proof for a wide-ranging empirical assertion.

    i guess as a comparison, i can give you 90 other data points from students in the Facebook Apps class i’m teaching at Stanford this fall who would offer a contrary perspective. they have formed 30 teams of 3 to build apps and learn about using Facebook as an launchpad for startup entrepreneurship. i doubt any of them feel like they’re wasting their time, as you suggest.

    regardless whether there is one (Facebook) or many (Google, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc) environments for creating socially-aware applications, i have no doubt such platforms will provide great utility for both personal- & business-related functions.

    your pessimism on the subject notwithstanding, i’d also say the ~50 or so startups who’ve built Facebook apps in the past 6 months, and have acquired >1M total users or >100K daily active users are also not wasting their time. while many of those apps may be playful or focused on entertainment that seems “non-business”, the companies who are creating them are driving for very real business objectives, and are funded by VCs who expect real returns on their capital.

    lastly, the continued focus on a college demographic is telling last year’s story — usage in the over 25 age group is growing rapidly and in the UK and Canada (where Facebook didn’t start in the college demographic) the population is fairly evenly distributed amone age groups 15-45.

    you can continue to beat the horse for as long as it drives readership, but the horse you are beating is headed for the glue factory. meanwhile while you write their epitaph, there are plenty of healthy thoroughbreds out racing around the track.


    – dave mcclure

  8. As an older college student (now graduated) who has also spent time in the “real world” working, I see both worlds. But I don’t see Facebook becoming a business networking tool anytime soon. The “culture” on Facebook is more of carefree fun and geared towards the student population. If I want to network for business purposes, I’ll stick to LinkedIn.

  9. What sort of poorly connected nincompoop needs social networks to foster business connections?

  10. @Dave,

    You lost me.

    First, the age of Facebook users tells you nothing about how they are using the app — or how successful they are at achieving their goals, i.e. personal networking vs. professional networking. I’ve no doubt that there are many people over 22 using Facebook to connect with friends and family — that’s what it’s designed for.

    My critique is not about Facebook as a PERSONAL social networking app or about the potential to build or grow a business by developing an app for Facebook Platform. Facebook may well become the most popular PERSONAL networking platform on the planet, and many VC-backed Facebook app companies will do well (all O’Reilly’s analysis suggests a very long tail won’t, but that’s another story).

    No, my critique is about whether Facebook is the right platform for BUSINESS networking, i.e. developing and cultivating professional relationships. I think online BUSINESS networking is going to go vertical — and that’s not necessarily going to be a big blow to Facebook, which will likely retain everyone who uses it for personal networking. But I do think it represents a BIG opportunity for vertical professional networks.

  11. @Scott:

    ok, so my apologies if i misinterpreted your remarks above — to me, it sounded like you were stating a pessimistic view of the future opportunity for companies that were making bets on the Facebook application platform economy.

    on the other hand, while i’d agree with you there are MANY opportunities for other social networks & social application platforms to be successful, i don’t think that means that Facebook is exclusive to business networking.

    while i’m still a big LinkedIn fan, i’ve also seen a ton of my communications and relationships with Silicon Valley VCs, angels, entrepreneurs & geeks move into the Facebook arena.

    in any case, i guess your mileage may vary.

    peace out,

    – dmc

  12. sorry, in #12 2nd paragraph meant to say “Facebook is exclusive to personal social networking” instead of “Facebook is exclusive to business networking”.

  13. I’m sorry, Scott. I even agree with you — it is ridiculous to consider Facebook a business networking tool when there are still — after nearly a year of being open to non-students — no way to describe business relationship-bases for connections.

    But how does one op-ed piece by a 23-year-old prove anything, much less prove that “the jokes on everyone who’s taking Facebook seriously.”? Are we to believe that the op-ed contributor, Alice Mathias, is the individual in charge of determining who the jokes on? What if the jokes on her and many (most?) of the tens of millions of student users of Facebook are not only goofing off and entertaining themselves on Facebook — but are also learning to use it for networking purposes that involve academics, planning extracurricular activites and organizing clubs and teams. And why is it that American business people — like you — don’t accept that youthful play is where shildren — all the way through to college — develop the interpersonal and team skills that evolve into business skills. What if the jokes on Alice and it’s the fun and entertainment of Facebook that actually helps it to become a business tool because it reflects certain preferences and ethos of a new generation of workers?

    In much the same way that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” perhaps one day we’ll look back and observe the the business networking battle was won in the sandbox of Facebook. Or, perhaps not. But one thing is certain. For business people — especially media business people — to avoid learning first-hand what Facebook is all about (and LinkedIn, for that matter) because of anything Alice writes in her op-ed piece is ensuring that the joke, one day, will be on them.

  14. I’m skeptical like Rex. I haven’t talked to any students recently about using Facebook, but those I’ve talked to in the past suggested that they use it like it was meant to be used, as a “book of faces”. In the Ivy Leagues they actually have a “facebook”, which serves a very useful need – to find out all about the cute girl in your chem class…and that’s partly why Facebook succeeded in the first place.

    Alice’s piece seems a bit too dismissive, although I agree with you that Facebook isn’t as professional as it is friendly.

  15. @Rex,

    You have me up until “For business people — especially media business people” — all of the “adults” in Facebook are either using it for fun or they are media/tech folks trying to understand all of the hype.

    I agree that Facebook is a great place to experiment and fool around. But Zuckerberg & Co. have duped everyone into believing that Facebook is the panacea for every use case.

    And it’s just not. It’s a fantastic trailblazer — but it isn’t the final destination.

    Everyone using Facebook for business is doing so because the hype machine makes them feel like they should, NOT because it’s self-evidently the right app for the purpose. And that’s fine — everyone is learning. But soon it’s going to be time to grow up.

    And, no, you can quote all the developmental psych you want, but I still don’t by that “poking” business contacts or seeing what type of relationship they seek with a man or a woman is forwarding any business networking objectives. It’s just silly.

  16. Scott, I guess I was talking about media people I know who do everything they can to avoid anything dealing with the Web — not the ones (like me) who dive into the deep end of any new trendy and shiny thing. If we disagree on anything, it’s around the edges — not at the core. And for the record, I’ve never “poked” anyone…I still haven’t figured out what that’s all about.

  17. Scott, in comment #6, I think a more appropriate analogy that illustrates the point is the interstate highway system. Kids use it to visit friends and get laid. Adults use it to conduct business, visit friends, and get laid.

  18. I don’t have enough experience of Facebook yet to determine in what contexts it will be useful, but I agree with Greg and Ed. It makes me think of when I introduced mIRC into a business/journalism context. As an editorial executive, I had no need for it personally (over a two-year period I probably sent only half a dozen IMs in total), but as a tool for connecting work groups and disparate news bureaus it was second to none.

    As I’d been the architect of its use from the beginning, I could set the initial tone and then see where the staff would take it. It was hugely powerful in boosting productivity and creating in-house connections across disciplines and national cultures.

    It generated a lot of humour as social connections were developed and a great many relationships became much closer as a result. Without any need to “snoop”, it provided me with a dashboard into the productivity of my news organization.

    The problem with other colleagues who were more dismissive of the benefits at the time, was that they did not monitor it for long enough to see how it could short-circuit story generation and knowledge transfer, particularly on complex topics which needed to be nuanced for multiple readerships. Invariably, they’d log in when a cockney rabble-rouser was “slapping” a female German colleague with a large trout, an action which in the real-world I would obviously have had to sack him for. (For those not familiar with mIRC in this context, see Wikipedia).

  19. I can vouch for this one. I learned about Facebook as a junior in college and now seeing that people are using it as a business tool is a shock. I understand why this happened, but feel that it should be for more social engagements instead of business.

  20. Interesting analysis. I too have played around with FaceBook as a possible business networking platform (listening to Bob Scoble, I guess) and found it not necessarily the best solution. A blog post comparing FaceBook to LinkedIn got me looking into the latter and finding it more focused on business networking. I don’t know that FaceBook is necessarily wrong for business; it might morph into a site that crosses the personal-business gap better than it does now. in the meantime, I’m networking on LinkedIn.


  21. [...] Scott Karp jumped in and cheered on that point of view and says “…the issue is that so many “adults” fell for Facebook’s ploy to convince them that they should adopt a toy built for college kids as a platform for their professional networking objectives.” [...]

  22. [...] Laughing: No, the issue is that so many “adults” fell for Facebook’s ploy to convince them that they should adopt a toy built for college kids as a platform for their professional networking objectives. [...]

  23. I have used Facebook since the beginning when I was in college. It’s all about socializing and keeping in touch, but now it allows non-school affiliated members and companies to advertise and create events. It still has its party side but has also incorporated some business tools. I have used Facebook for industry events, postings, networking, apartment hunting and much more. I think it’s easier and more effective to communicate and keeps tabs on people than MySpace & LinkedIn. It’s evolving no doubt, but not sure it will ever be the strongest business-social networking site.

  24. It seems to me that the idea that an outside group could swoop in and–in a matter of a few months–redefine the purpose and direction of a community that had 9 million members contradicts the whole ethos of web 2.0 and all the bullshit we hear.

    Facebook picked a very short sighted strategy. Instead of growing with the college crowd they had (who inevitably would have become the next generation of professionals and adults) they decided to shoot for popularity with the geek crowd today. Good luck, but I think it is a mistake.

  25. [...] Scott Karp jumped in and cheered on that point of view and says “…the issue is that so many “adults” fell for Facebook’s ploy to convince them that they should adopt a toy built for college kids as a platform for their professional networking objectives.” [...]

  26. Facebook has given greater convenience to user though idea was derived from Linked-In, Skype , etc – and if user will start using it – – which in hindsight are using already – nothing wrong in this?

  27. You can build all sorts of applications for Facebook. If done right, there is no reason it can’t be used for business!

  28. I don’t see why it can’t be many things to many people. Everyone’s network is different.

  29. I was a core college user when it fully opened up, and am not surprised it is now a central business hub.

  30. Facebook will be whatever the users want it to be – business, personal or both. I’m actually confused at the notion of grown-ups BTW. it has this traditional, pre-conceive notion that make us grown-ups sound old and outdated. In any case, two days ago we discussed friendster, yesterday was my space, today is facebook, tomorrow will be something else.

  31. [...] Facebook’s Core College Student Users Laugh At Attempts To Use It For Business – Publishing 2.0 (tags: Facebook networks connectivity socnet social networking media community communicating) [...]

  32. In the late 70’s early 80’s black dj’s started making unusual use of vinyl records to make music. Music critics thrashed these dj’s and their use of these vinyl records to make ‘scratching’ sounds.

    General debate followed. Where was this world going? What the hell is that? That is not music?!

    It took some time but then, like any innovation, it became mainstream and even a skill or mastery. Millions were made with the “improper use” of vinyl records;-)

    Innovative use of tools to do something is led, as Maria mentioned, by its users. Often those users are younger people as they are exploring life and often have a much more expiremental approach to everything. They are still exploring.

    So, here we have a different generation (non-students) coming up with different way to use a tool that had been only offered to students.

    Different people make different use of tools. WhoopyDoo. The debate about how something should be used is arguably boring. Exploration of interesting, innovative use of tools is probably more interesting.

    When I was ten, I got sick of adults claiming authority on wisdom and what was right. As far as I was concerned, that is age discrimination. I wrote on a note to myself, that as an adult, I would never disregard someone because of their younger age.

    Today I would say that this works both ways.

    Innovative use is just that – innovative. The merit of the innovation should be considered in its own right.

    No age group can lay claim on the proper use of a tool – or Facebook. Just because they were the first to use it – does not mean it is the best and only way to use it.


  33. Living in Boulder, I know many 30+ year olds trying to use Facebook and it makes you wonder…do these folks have an age identity problem??

  34. [...] it any wonder the college kids who first used Facebook are now laughing at the geriatrics for their attempts to turn i…? SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “The Yahoo! Junk Boom Effect vs The Facebook Baby Boomer Blitz”, url: [...]

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