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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.

Nature Publishing Group, a publisher of scientific journals, for example, has developed a technology that will help scientists sync up through a Web application much like Facebook.

Instead of sharing info about what you're reading or listening to these days, the point of the service, called Nature Network, is to let scientists share knowledge to improve the quality of their work. Popular groups on the network are related around topics like global warming and autism, and the service has thousands of users around the world.

"Ten or 15 years ago, if you were a scientist, most of your communication with other scientists took place at conferences," said Caitlin Trasande, an emerging-technology analyst for the company. "This generation, they don't want to wait until next year's conference."

The company has also held virtual conferences and other get-togethers on an island it maintains in the online world Second Life.

Full disclosure: Caitlin's a college friend of mine who turned up on my radar again after I, yes, started my Facebook page last week.

Kay, the analyst, says it's probably inevitable that Microsoft or Google will snatch up Facebook. The holy grail, for both companies, is to build a Web world that people never need to leave, when they're online. You'll never need to open a separate browser window to buy a book, check movie listings, whatever.

I've been a member of only one sort of social online network that I can think of, and it's a bit of a taskmaster. As I write this, for example, I'm logged onto Microsoft's online network for the Xbox game console at work and can see that my nephew has already sailed far past me in Halo 3's "campaign" mode, even though I had a head start of several days. I feel like I need to catch up.

Fortunately, there's no time to dwell on that because, bing, I just got an e-mail that someone has just written on my wall at Facebook, an occurrence that seems important somehow.

Maintaining that Facebook page, if I don't abandon it, will now end up on the list of modern-day tasks -- along with periodically resetting my cable modem, figuring out better ways to convert movies into the iPhone or PSP format, maintaining a smart Netflix queue, updating my wedding blog and trying to remember to program the Pioneer Inno to record Bob Dylan's show on XM Radio. It's a full life.

Alas, I never ended up writing that news story about Facebook, as I couldn't find anybody to confirm that the Microsoft offer was for real. If you're on my friends list and know something about the alleged deal -- please, "poke" me.

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