One does not simply passively consume the Internet–though small children with YouTube on auto-play might. It is not broadcast, or even interactive, television: the Internet is a many-pronged communications platform, a universe of ends. Its killer application was e-mail (and USENET and IRC and FTP and gopher and) then the World Wide Web. The web took off, not because of streaming music or video, but because anyone could share anything with anyone else. The utility of each of these tools–news, mail, chat, bulletin boards, blogs–was degraded by spam, aggressive advertising, untrustworthy and undesirable content. By undesirable I don’t mean in a general sense, as one might mean in talking about pornography and its effect on society, but in the particular: individual recipients did not want it.
But we keep using these tools because we are gregarious, social animals who want to connect with each other.
I would share books and articles with friends and family even before the Internet. Look at this: I read this thing you would like. I did the same online, sending links to others in chat and e-mail, sometimes with comments, then later sharing with and connecting to a wider world by posting to my website, frequently, with Radio Userland and syndicating with RSS and Atom. Those early blogging days were heady, just as the early online chat, news, and e-mail days were. Everyone knew everyone else. There were scaling issues, and personality conflicts, and tools changed. And comment spam and trolls became a problem. Is the FOAF application of RDF still a thing? The Semantic Web?
And then there was Facebook.
Facebook was not the first social network, but it was the one my IRL friends and family joined. Facebook offered a way to reconnect with people I hadn’t yet found online and, more particularly, opened a path to conversation with them. We could share things we thought interesting and discuss them.
A lot of the utility of Facebook was driven by the desolation elsewhere on the web, which had become a desert filled with blipverts, billboards, and trolls desperately grasping for you and your attention–and still is if you travel without an ad blocker. The usefulness of Facebook has diminished over time, but the same basic draw is still there: my friends, the people I know and to whom I want to stay connected.
It’s the same reason I have a phone.
Some have called relationships on Facebook a facade of a community. That depends on how you use it. It can be either. It is an attempt to reproduce something we miss: A village, a neighborhood, a college, a pub. A great Third Place.
Can it be if the host is a Ferengi, and you are not his customers?