If these walls could talk, what would they say?
Would they say theirs was a great love, a drunken night, or a perfect day?
Would they bare the ugliness of bickering, the drama, or say,
These two were meant to love, meant to be, meant to stay.
A status update, a cry for help, a friend in need broke up today,
We reach out and the void answers.
It’s remarkable how the phenomenon of the wall has evolved. Of course, by ‘wall,’ I don’t mean the four things that hold the roof up. Instead, I’m referring to The Facebook “Wall” and all similar “space” on the internet that we used to publicy post on another person’s page. This is the remarkable story of the wall, it’s earliest incarnations on the first social networks. This is a story from the front-lines of internet history, from the point of view of a college student at Berkeley. The funny thing about the internet is that it’s constantly changing, and so much of what happens in this story has been lost to time, bits wiped clean on a server somewhere. The other funny thing is that other people will have very different stories, from different networks, but the confluence of circumstances including the people I was partying with and the school that I went to, makes this story, this online…. upbringing… unique to me.
In the beginning, there was Friendster. I don’t know how they did it, but I was almost instantly obsessed. I think the people at Friendster did one brilliant thing – and that was to put my profile name and picture right next to the number of friends I had. The essentially conditioned me into thinking that that friend number was some measure of self-worth – and I bought into it. It fed a hunger to accumulate more and more friends. And so the hunt began. Every night we would go out to party, and every night we would come home with a few names – no not numbers – just names – that we would type into Friendster and add them as friends. If we couldn’t find her, because, let’s be honest, it was usually a ‘her’, we would scour the host’s friend-list, loooking for her there. And if we couldn’t do that, we’d look for other common-friends, checking their friend-lists as well. And then we would find her, and there would be this tiny rush every time we added a new friend, like a drug hitting the bloodstream.
The second number that Friendster reported prominently was your Testimonials – essentially a new invention where you other people could testify to your awesomeness. In the beginning, the testimonial was a place for girls to talk about how amazing you were, and for guys to do some virtual-wing-manning with lines like “all you girls out there should be knowin this dude is da greatest there is.” And once again, there was something about that number – you felt this need to rack-up more testimonials, because slowly this profile on some social network was starting to have credibility and value in the real world. This was especially true in smaller bounded-communities, where for the first time the social network had a big enough critical mass so that people you cared about impressing in the real-world were all living in the same virtual world. So you would write testimonials for other people, struggling to come up with something nice to say about the biggest low-life, in hopes that he would give you a testimonial back. But the testimonial soon degenerated into useless flotsam of the internet – on Heather’s page – “OMG girliee you’re soo amazing I had so much fun last night. – ❤ Natasha” This type of banter became commonplace on the testimonial pages, and, since it was increasing your testimonial count, could you really argue? Furthermore, it had a second type of value attached to it – the Testimonial was out in the open – and now anyone going to Heather’s page could see that Natasha was good friends with Heather, and that they had partied last night, while the rest of us shmuck’s weren’t having half as much fun wherever we were. The Testimonial became your own personal little Tabloid where you could see-and-be-seen.
Then there was Facebook
Facebook hit Friendster like a ton of bricks. I heard about Facebook, and absolutely refused to join. It was ridiculous – I had spent all this time racking up friends and writing testimonials on Friendster so I would look cool, and now you expected me to just throw that away and start fresh? Hell no. I’m staying right here. People would tell me – ‘oh Facebook is so much faster. Friendster has gotten hella slow.’ Or ‘Facebook is so much more exclusive because it’s just at Berkeley.’ About two months into it, I woke up one day and Friendster was a ghost-town. No one had written me a testimonial in weeks, and I was beginning to get peeved. I held on as long as I could, but finally I got on Facebook. I remember the initial rush of finding people. So many all at once. Facebook was a closed-network at the time – I could only see people who went to Berkeley – and so I would scroll through all the names of people in the Berkeley network, adding every person I recognized. Within minutes I had sent Friend Requests to 50 people – each one creating a tiny rush – like a tiny shot of heroin. It had taken my months to find that many people on Friendster. I was like a junkie getting his first taste of the good stuff.
Soon Facebook rolled-out a feature similar to the Friendster Testimonial – they called it the “Wall.” In the beginning, the Wall was a text-box on each person’s profile page. It was a text-box that anyone could edit – essentially like the whiteboard on the front-door of my dorm-room, anyone could leave me a message there, but they could also write over or delete someone else’s message. This seemed like an innovative take on the problem, but I yearned for a more tesimonial-like interface, and soon Facebook complied. This was part of the magic of software – the platform was changing right beneath our feet – and unlike the bloggers who analyzed every move and the parents who resist change, we leapt for joy at every innovation. The innovation was like it’s own security blanket – reminding us that this time the platform underneath us wasn’t going to give-way – it was going to keep evolving. As the 5th school in the US to get Facebook, we at Berkeley were power-users long before my friends in Dallas had even heard of Facebook. Facebook relaunched the Wall so that anyone could add a post to a wall, more like a traditional message board. And, just like Friendster before them, they put a number up at the top – a way to quantify how cool you were – by how many wall posts you had.
This number, I am convinced, is responsible for Facebook taking-off. The technology was better, yes, it was faster, yes, but had it not been for their adaptiveness, their changing the Wall right under our feet, and adding that number – that number that quantified my self-worth somewhere where everyone could see it, I never would have gotten sucked-in. Before long, we were racing to write posts on other people’s walls. As usual, the wall was public domain, so it was important that everyone could see all the cool people I was associating with.
To be continued… in Part 2!