When you need to cut 30 pieces of wood at exactly a 45-degree angle, you have no better friend than a compound miter saw. But the stinging truth is that you probably don’t care about the miter saw, even as you’re using it; what you really want is the end-product. And the deeper truth, is that even that end product (the cut wood) probably doesn’t matter as much as what you are building out of that wood.
This truth should keep Mark Zuckerberg up at night, and is a lesson for all government offices that now have outposts on Facebook: the site is a tool–albeit a very versatile one that is constantly updating itself (sometimes against its users’ wishes!). But what people really want is the connection that Facebook facilitates. And what they especially desire is connection beyond Facebook.
No one loves their compound miter saw; it’s only a tool. And chances are that every-day Facebook users–unless they own stock in the company–don’t love that tool either. But it does get the job done.
I wrote, enthusiastically and erroneously, that Google+ would supplant Facebook. While my projection was obviously too bullish on the the upstart social network, I do stand by the assertion that Facebook itself is not intrinsically optimal in meeting our desire for connection. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill’s estimation of democracy, Facebook is simply better than all the other alternatives.
As we observe Facebook’s 10th anniversary, it’s important to recognize that it is, like Altavista before it, only a digital tool. It’s power lies in network externalities, and its utility in what it can do, not in what it is. And should a new digital network come to dominate the social landscape, Facebook may look less like a compound miter saw, and more like a hand drill.