Paul Saffo

on Using Facebook
Stanford professor, technology forecaster and Facebook enthusiast

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Exclusive Interview

Paul Saffo on Using Facebook

With more than 20 years experience exploring long-term technological change and its impact on both business and society, forecaster Paul Saffo, Ph.D., is not only a Stanford professor but an avid Facebook enthusiast. Saffo’s essays and articles on technology and innovation issues have appeared in numerous publications, including, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Wired, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Here, Saffo explains Facebook’s impact on individual users and society at large.

How did Facebook, which began as a college-based social networking site, become such a huge phenomenon?

It was a combination of things. First, by starting on the college campus and with a metaphor that college students understood—the face book, which has been around for decades—the company started with instant buy-in and community. Thus, when it launched, the site already had a really good foundation to approach users and it was more convenient than scurrying around looking for yearbooks.

What are the main ways people use Facebook now?

It’s pretty broad: Users run the gamut from people who are just socially hanging out to those who take advantage of the platform’s business uses.

What are the benefits of Facebook when compared to other social networking platforms?

First, Facebook has more media forms than any other site, except maybe MySpace. Flickr has photos, but no personal pages. LinkedIn has text, but not much more. Plaxo centers on business cards. Facebook allows for all of these and even has widgets and applications that help you do so much more.

The second thing that sets Facebook apart is that it allows independent developers to build their own applications. In modern times, people want the convenience of online, but they also want to have something that begins to approximate the richness of face-to-face interaction. With all of the add-ons appearing on Facebook, I think that we’re getting closer to that. Facebook is always new and developing.

What are the most important things people should do when starting a Facebook profile?

It’s very important to start with a really good foundational community—a few, core people that you know well and trust offline. See how that goes first and then expand your Facebook network to others. Facebook has several limitations: There’s no polite way to exclude people and there’s no way to separate your networks. Do you really want to let the high school class clown loose with your business contacts?

I’d be careful about what you share. Don’t pour your soul out to strangers; just because you can doesn’t mean you should. To quote George Washington: “Tell not your dreams but to an intimate friend.” Start slowly with sharing information and always work on the assumption that anything you put on Facebook will be completely public. Make sure there’s nothing on there that might embarrass you.

Which leads me to my next point: Pay attention to your picture. Pictures often tell much more about you than you realize. I have a 50-year-old friend who uses Facebook. His profile featured a picture of him on a beach with a woman. The picture just screamed, “Midlife crises!” With Facebook, as with anything else, it’s the details that matter.

Next, Facebook is great, but don’t let it be the only social site you use. I use Facebook and I love it. I also use Yahoo! Groups a lot. I have some friends who would look at me in complete puzzlement if they knew about all the things I’m interested in and discuss. Even though Facebook is the shiny new toy, don’t think of it as the only toy in the toy box.

Can you talk a bit about the use of Facebook as an advertising vehicle?

It’s a potent communication medium, so anyone can also advertise him or herself on the site. It’s important to understand that you need to advertise in a different way than you might normally. A personal relationship is key. Think: If you were on the other end of the communication, how would you react? Status updates are a great way to advertise yourself and your projects.

What are some of the most common privacy concerns? And how can people ensure they don’t fall prey to tons of Facebook spam?

Everyone worries about Big Brother—the government and large corporations—but I worry about all the “Little Brothers” out there; small companies and individuals who might be intensely interested in what a specific consumer does.

The solution is simple: assume that anything you put online will be available to everyone, from your closest friends to utter strangers. And it will be available to everyone for years and years to come. So don’t put up anything that you think might be embarrassing a decade or two from now. And absolutely don’t think that something is OK to show or do because all your friends are also doing it, because one’s actions today will be judged by the standards of the time it is viewed, not the time it was done, which is why so many politicians have problems with having smoked marijuana in college. Back then, one was a square if they didn’t smoke, but, today, they’re pummeled for being irresponsible.

How has Facebook changed the way we communicate on the web?

Facebook is changing how we communicate in real time. For instance, a lot of people have struggled between using Facebook and email. I have a friend who’s new to Facebook and kept sending me messages through the site every five minutes and I finally had to remind him that he could always send me an email. It’s the same balancing act that we had with instant messaging and email. The answer is clear: You need a big screen! You’ll need to have an email page, an instant message page and a Facebook page open at all times.

For professionals trying to do their work, my advice is to limit the frequency one accesses the various services. For example, visit Facebook once per day at a set time and limit how much time you’re on. The same rule works great for email—answer all your email at one time in a block and then don’t get back on.

How do you see Facebook changing technology and our society in the long term?

In cyberspace, there’s no distance between two points. So Facebook is a new way to create new borderless friends throughout the world. Because of Facebook and the internet, we’re going to fly more than ever. If you chat long enough with someone in Mumbai or Chile or Shanghai, you’re going to want to go there. Everybody assumes that the Internet is going to let us travel the world without leaving our seats. Instead, we’ll travel more than ever, so take a pillow.

What else do people need to know about using Facebook?

Never forget that the paradox of the information age is that when information is in digital form, the information that you most want to preserve will be lost. But, the information you most want to disappear, that information will last forever. So assume that anything you put up on the internet, not just Facebook, will last forever and act accordingly.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

Things always get better, no matter how bad it gets.

“The best thing about change is...”

That uncertainty is just change written sideways.

What’s the best change you have ever made?

Getting out of New York. I’m from California. I came back to Silicon Valley just as the personal computer revolution was taking off. The weather is better, and I get to wear blue jeans and a white shirt instead of a suit. Moreover, California looks west across the pacific to Asia; New York looked east toward Europe and traditional opportunities. The future arrives here first.

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