Into Facebook and Old Friends

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, September 30, 2007

I took an accidental walk down memory lane last week after finally signing up for a Facebook account.

The occasion? There was a report going around that Microsoft was buying a stake of the popular social networking site in a deal that would value Facebook at a whopping $10 billion -- and it looked like I might have to write a news story.

Trouble is, I'd always avoided social networks, because I figure I don't need the Web to keep track of my friends. I already have a tough time keeping track of phone calls and e-mails; who needs more work? As a tech reporter, my lack of Facebook time has been a bit of a dark secret, especially as everybody else on the planet rushes to join up.

Here are the numbers: The site has more than 41 million users and has been signing up new ones more rapidly than ever lately, at a rate of a million per week. Microsoft and Google are said to be clamoring to buy a chunk of the company, though they both declined to comment on the matter; Yahoo got shot down when it offered to buy the company for $1 billion last year.

The company says that the fastest growing group of users at Facebook, which started as a service for college kids, is people over 35. That's my demographic, as you can see on my new Facebook page.

Tech pundits say that old-timers like me are joining the site in droves because it has a layout and user interface that is easier on the eyes than MySpace's pages are. It lets people stay in touch in a way that's easy to use and not too pushy. What's more, Facebook users generally are who they say they are and don't conceal themselves behind fictional usernames or avatars.

And some say there isn't really anything new here, except a nice interface and some cool tools you didn't have in earlier days. Analyst Roger Kay says Facebook's model of bringing people together simply follows a trend that the Web has been observing for 20 years, dating back to old-school bulletin board systems and the early days of AOL.

Kay's a fan of a widget on Facebook that lets visitors to his profile see the places he's lived and the places he's visited, but he also thinks the latest valuations of Facebook are "close to being insane."

"This is the froth on this year's bubble," he said.

Bumbling onto the site in a hurry last week, I immediately committed a digital goof. I let the site send out a "friend request" to everyone in my Gmail address book with a Facebook account. Whoops. Hello, ex-girlfriends, sorry to bother you.

As a result, I've been Googling my friends all week -- to figure out who they are. The second person to sign me up as a friend was an amiable Microsoft tech support staffer I talked to last year when my old Xbox died (hi Jam!). For days, my Gmail account has been loading up with responses from people saying hello from the far corners of my address book.

While Facebook was built as a way to keep people in touch with one another socially, some are starting to see this sort of network as having practical, work-related applications.

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