The PR-masquerading-as-journalism that passes for “tech news” has been touting Facebook’s platform a lot this week. I have to admit that what I’ve seen has been pretty impressive–while a lot of companies like to talk about social media, Facebook has taken the basic idea of using the social graph as an underlying substrate for software and made it a reality. In doing so they’ve driven home a lesson too often forgotten in the orgies of hype that surround each new “social” technology: that the standards and conventions which make these systems possible always exclude as much as they connect. Susan Leigh Star recognized this 16 years ago, as a McDonald’s customer who is allergic to onions. Kenyatta Cheese and his illegitimate name provide the 2007 remix of Star’s phenomenology of conventions. It seems that Facebook has certain ideas about what kinds of names normal people should have, and what kinds of names are to be considered suspicious. If you’re one of the suspects, no problem: just show them your papers. Or you could opt out of using Facebook. But if they deliver on their promise to become the next Microsoft, you might just have to change your name instead.
Ramesh Jain laments social networking’s focus on youth, wondering when entrepreneurs will begin to use these tools to address needs beyond sex and friendship. Well, they are–LinkedIn being a primary example–but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for venture capitalists to slaver over social networks for people with families and careers the way they do over MySpace and Facebook. The reason for the focus on youth is that young people are more influenced by their peers, and thus more easily marketed to as a bloc. In this sense new mass media like MySpace and Facebook are continuous with old mass media: TV and radio also focus on selling to young people. Rupert Murdoch saw this right away. The bottom line is that it is much easier to make money by inducing artificial needs among the young and pliant than it is to address the real needs of older people.