Now that Facebook has gone public and seems to have hit a wall ensnaring new users, the social network is apparently chasing a new demographic: preteens. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is considering allowing kids under 13 to have their own profiles on the social network.
Getting kids onboard should be the easy part. The real challenge might be getting the rest of us to stick around when Mark Zuckerberg cranks open the floodgates. Here’s why allowing kids on Facebook could begin the slow decline of Facebook as we know it.
Didn’t we already learn this lesson?
Allow me to take you back in time, to a point when the concept of sharing on the Internet was just taking shape. People were signing up to this new site where it was dead easy to create your own little slice of the Web. You could customize the background on the page, post pictures, and write missives about what you’ve been up to since you left college/high school/prison.
Anyone you ever had contact with in your life was on there, too, just waiting for you. As soon as you signed up, their requests would flood your inbox. And then you would go out searching and find new people that you wanted to be linked to and send requests to them. It was one big, digital connective ecosystem where the people you grew up with never fell off the face of the earth. They were right there, sharing stories about what their kid just threw up. The media had taken to calling it a “social network.”
Then things changed.
Those friend requests in your inbox? Now you weren’t sure who most of them were. You click on one to find out and it turned out to be spam or, worse, a virus.
When you did go to a friend’s page, you were probably greeted with a blaring rendition of Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry” that you couldn’t escape without turning your speakers off. Or your friend installed one of those new shape-shifting wallpapers, guaranteed to crash a system with less than 1GHz of power.
In short, the preteens invaded our happy home on MySpace. Like locusts, they consumed every available resource, spreading their disease until the ecosystem was uninhabitable. Things they thought were cool, like making everyone listen to the music they liked when unwitting visitors stumbled on their page, were inevitably adopted by some of your more simple-minded friends until it was impossible to go to a page without either getting a headache, crashing your system, or downloading malware.
So the intelligent people evacuated to somewhere cleaner. Perhaps a little less creative, but more stable and peaceful. No code allowed. Everything was entered using a plain text editor. The best part was exclusivity; originally you needed a college-based e-mail address to join. A little later, the age limit was 18. Everything was right with the world.
Even when Facebook opened to 13-year-olds, the sandbox remained pristine. It was like Thanksgiving: The kiddies have their own table where they can post rude pictures of themselves and talk about that insipid “Call Me Maybe” song while the adults are left in peace to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria and the upcoming debt ceiling debate. Or post rude pictures of themselves.
But now the preteens are coming for us on Facebook.
Batten down the hatches
Sure, the security on Facebook is light years ahead of what could be called “security” on MySpace. If you have your privacy settings set correctly, your annoying little nephew or the kids from your middle school English class won’t be able to find you. If you really know what you’re doing, they will only be able to find the version of you that you want them to see. You know, the one that attends church regularly and helps out at the food bank every Thursday night.
In terms of the spam and malware, what happened to MySpace won’t happen to Facebook. The code is too strong. As free and fair as we would like to think Facebook is, it really is more of an authoritarian regime than we would like to admit. Unfortunately, that regime can’t ignore the potential wealth that a new segment of the population can bring. Their allowances are burning holes in their pockets and Facebook hopes some of that cash is the answer to their advertising prayers.
Ask any parent. Once you become beholden to the interests of children, your way of thinking changes. Bad ideas become good ideas, as long as the kid stops whining. What I’m worried about with Facebook isn’t that the kids will be able to destroy our ecosystem themselves with their virus-infested computers and phones, but rather that their forward-thinking ideas will cause a cultural shift at Facebook itself. Let’s be honest: after rap producers, teens and preteens are the tastemakers of our culture.
If they have an idea to have, say, music play automatically when you reach someone’s timeline, don’t you think that the music-related advertisers would like that idea? Or what about a live feed where my friends can sit there and watch me play Modern Warfare 3 incessantly? That would be great! And the color scheme isn’t bright enough. You guys should let us change the colors on the site to whatever we want. Welcome to FaceSpace!
Wow, I sounded quite old just then, but that’s the point. Old people need a place to be old and young people need a place to be stupid. Facebook is a golf course: calm, pristine, and quiet. The kids need a roller rink, a place where they can be as loud and obnoxious as they are capable of being. In other words, they need to stay off my lawn.