Facebook isn’t a web site (or a spaceship), it’s a time machine

I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook lately. A couple of months ago, maybe around the time Barrack Obama got the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver, a funny thing started happening with my 50 or so “friends” on Facebook. Since I joined earlier in ’08, there’s been an awful lot of dead air — most people never posted any photos or links, never commented, never even updated their status.

But with Obama-mania in the air, suddenly everybody was posting stuff. Here’s a link to an article about the election, followed by a few wry comments on the news, then a shared web site with reassuring poll results. And this burst of life around the election then began morphing into all kinds of Facebook activity. Instead of dead air, my Facebook home page suddenly was filled news from my cousin living in Namibia, jokes from former co-workers I met at jobs as long ago as 1993, photos of the neighbors canoeing near our house and on and on. And even now, with the election well in our rearview mirror, the activity continues.

Something big has happened with Facebook — not just big but, culturally speaking, huge, massive, gigantic. And it’s not anything you’ve read in the newspaper about the business prospects of Web 2.0 or the celebrity/genius founder Mark Zuckerburg as the next Bill Gates. In fact, it’s something much bigger and more profound.

Facebook is turning out to be more than just another web site where people go to post personal stuff. It’s a place where families gather to stay in touch across thousands of miles. It’s a venue for keeping in contact with your far-flung network of friends, real friends, the people you met in school or at an old job who now live someplace else or work someplace else. It’s reconnecting people on a day-to-day level in a way that hasn’t been possible since we invented planes, trains and automobiles.

There’s a classic scene in the already iconic TV series Mad Men that takes place near the end of the final episode of the first season. The lead character, Don Draper (played by John Hamm), offers his 1960 advertising pitch for the Kodak slide projector. Seeking to play on the emotions of potential buyers, Draper rejects positioning the projector as a mere piece of technology. Instead, he emphasizes its ability to stir nostalgic feelings by taking people on a trip through their memories, memories preserved in old slides.

Nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent. Greek, nostalgia literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. And it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again. A place where we know we are loved.

So, to continue my Facebook analogy, here’s a different word derived from Greek for you: diaspora. In Greek, – literally a scattering or sowing of seeds. The Greek sense may have come from the Hebrew, in Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, verse 25,  – also a scattering. Typically, we think of large ethnic and religious groups being scattered, often by conquest. But I’m positing today a different kind of diaspora, an unavoidable scattering of all the people you have ever connected with in your life. My best friend Matthew Davis from first grade who moved away, my good pal Mitch Davis from 10th grade who moved away, my posse from high school now living up and down the east coast, college friends, cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles, work friends from my first through thirty-first jobs, old neighbors, old teachers, parents of friends, friends of parents. You get the picture.

Now Facebook isn’t going to keep you in touch with ever person you ever thought was cool or who you stayed up with having a late night debate about politics. Nor would you want it to. But as I have mentioned before, our modern, highly-mobile society has lost “ambient intimacy” — the day to day and minute to minute knowledge of small developments in the lives of those who are important to us. Used properly, Facebook can re-create that kind of intimacy. And that’s not the end of it. The real power is that by keeping up with the minor stuff online, you want to see and talk to those people more and when you do, the interaction is richer and more rewarding. Try it and see.

Of course, some may argue that my vision of Facebook doesn’t match how everybody is using Facebook. And that’s certainly true. Some people have “friended” hundreds, many of whom they barely know, and use the site to broadcast their lifestream as a form of mini-celebrity. Young people, who live more of their daily lives online, may actually NOT want their parents or cousins or uncool classmates to tune in to their Facebook streams.

But none of that takes away from what Facebook can be for a vast number of people who have forged emotional bonds but are now separated by time and distance. Like Don Draper says: Facebook, it’s not a web site, it’s a time machine. It’s the family room of the 21st century.

p.s. This post started out as a comment about Facebook and the election on publisher and Internet smartie Rex Hammock’s Rexblog and is indebted to Leisa Reichelt, on whose blog I first discovered the term “ambient intimacy.”

p.p.s. (added 12/3) I elaborated on this theme in a comment posted on John Battelle’s blog about the difference between Twitter and Facebook.

Prior coverage:

Twitter continues integration of everything theme (5/8/2008)