An outfit named ComScore released some stats in early September 2010 placing Facebook at the top of all online destinations. The August numbers for the U.S. suggest Americans spent

685,000 hours or 41.1 million minutes on Facebook, compared with 39.8 million minutes spent on Google

Now it’s well known that statistics are like a bikini, what they show is suggestive but what they hide is vital.

Let’s break this down a little. The difference in the two numbers is around 3%, which perhaps may not be meaningful. More interestingly there are a reported 240 million U.S. internet users, about 77% of the population, so for either Facebook or Google this usage is 0.5 seconds a day, just for working days. If we consider that only 1% of net users were on in August, that’s still only 50 seconds. A one minute squawk. If we multiply by three to account for email and both applications, we’re still up to an average of only three minutes per day.

Now if we look at this bottom-up, and imagine 1% of the users, i.e. less than 1% of the population, are online for an hour during weekdays, that comes out to 48 million hours, for a twenty day month. A factor of 70 over the reported Facebook minutes. Of course Facebook isn’t the only online activity (some people read blogs), but the numbers are still confusing.

August is also a bad month for comparisons, people take more vacation so it’s likely that there is more social activity and less searching. But what fascinates me is the popularity of Facebook. Particularly with people of my generation, social networking is not the “killer app” that drives us to the net. But if we go to the under 40’s, then the situation is radically different. I think the reasons are deep-rooted in our biology.

Dogs and cats have some social characteristics, but by and large they don’t hang out with each other. Yes, it’s true that they display social interactions, particularly in anger and when on heat, but there is no genetic predisposition to run around in packs. Much of that is linked to domestication, particularly in the case of dogs. Likewise they have no family ties. My dog’s sister lives next door, and the two don’t display any particular affection. Dogs were apparently domesticated some tens of thousands of years ago, and prior to that became a separate species from wolves. In biology a species is distinguished from another by not producing viable offspring together. A horse and a donkey can successfully breed but the mule is sterile. There endeth the horseplay.

Dogs on Facebook?

We, by contrast, hate being alone. It brings out our worst insecurities, and people will often do things they don’t like, with people they don’t much care for, just to have company. Social networking is a surrogate for company, and allows you to make friends by computer, and keep in touch with people as a community, rather than the old way of email. The very concept of email being “old” shows how fast the world around us changes. I first got on the web in 1994, using some really old school stuff called sockets – my acid test was to be able to access the Playboy website. As I mentioned in a previous post, purveyors of matters of the flesh are always the first to embrace (sorry) new technologies. Now that’s only 16 years ago, less time than it takes to get rid of your acne!

When the net went social, first with IRC, MSN, and other communal chat areas, and now with far more developed sites, it drew in a whole new community, eager to live up to our need for companionship. Teenagers, who in particular feel that loneliness, even when surrounded by love, suffering the angst that no one understands them, jumped at the chance of their own clique, where the rules of admission are controlled by friends. No one is as eager to have friends, and the prospect of closing the door to the inner circle is tantalizing. Of course this teen group autism is under attack from parents, who despite not finding the medium particularly attractive, do their everything to retain control, or at the very least oversight, by infiltrating the holy grail.

A short hop around the net shows this crushing need. A surreal site called Facebook Horror Stories reveals the suffering in the teenage heart. I only looked at a couple of pages, but I didn’t see anything particularly horrific, just girls and boys who like each other and then don’t, and the usual pain of rejection and loss. And a fair amount of profanity, entirely in keeping with the context. Far more interesting are the views on what is cool and what’s not. One sad infant (at least I hope he’s an infant) thanks the girls who post Facebook pics of themselves in bikinis because they now allow him to relieve himself without accessing porn sites. This obviously has a fair bit of momentum, given 31 voters rate it as awesome, versus 10 that vote “that sucks”. Clearly the message for me is that the majority isn’t always right. If anything sucks, in the cheesiest possible way, that sucks.

And that’s the second, and in my view the major issue with the social networking medium. It draws in insecure kids, craving attention and anxious for exposure, who believe in true everlasting love, and reveal their digital all. Unfortunately, the digital storage of today is the internet equivalent of elephant memory; prospective university placements, job opportunities, and medical insurance schemes are all avid consumers of the pachidermal petabytes. 

 A recent article in The Economist  identifies the Dunbar number of 150 as the ideal number of Facebook friends you can have, due to human constraints on networking. This has been hotly contested by social analysts. My father used to tell a story about Aesop, who threw a party to inaugurate his newly built house. A guest remarked that the house was rather small, and the fable(d) writer simply replied “I hope I shall fill it with true friends.”


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