Facebook had 26 million users in May this year, up from 14 million a year ago.  On 20 June a discussion thread started in the UK Civil Service facebook group called "Wow,13,000 civil servants in one place! What do we do now ?".  On 22 June, Jeremy Gould reported 13,365 in a post about social media tools in government – and now, a month later, there are 14,330 people in the group.  Something is happening, but it’s far from clear what that something is.

First, as one of the commenters in Gould’s post note, there may be 14,000 civil servants in a social network – but none of them knows what to do when they get there.  The discussion area boasts eight threads and a grand total of 69 posts, and there are 89 posts on the wall.  The "….what do we do now?" thread has twenty posts, none of which gets very far towards answering the question.

Secondly, Facebook and other social networking sites are escaping from what was their core demographic.  Over ten million of their unique visitors in May were over 35.  That’s interesting, because as Jeremiah Owyang reports:

I often ask my younger cousins, sisters, and their friends about
their internet usage, they consider me “old”. I ask them about which
websites they use, how they learn about new products, and what
influences them. In my casual ethnographic research, my kid sister in
college recently told me two things that still resonate in my head.

My college age kid sister told me that:

“Out of my hundreds of friends, only ONE does not use facebook or myspace.”

She also shared her email usage:

“I only use email to get a hold of old people like you”

Jeremiah is in his early 30s.

Third, Facebook is open in two important ways, which makes pinning down what it does or what it is for an impossible task.  The first is that it is open to third party developers, creating an ecosystem of functionality within the single site.  The second it that it is open to participants to interact how they choose, and to do so within groups defined by the participants – so it’s pretty obvious that tone, content, tools, attitudes to standardised spelling and a whole host of other characteristics will vary enormously.  But that also probably means that we all end up in areas where all those variables have values within the range we find comfortable – so being open is not being without boundaries.

All of this is  pretty inconclusive.  I have dipped a toe into Facebook, so maybe it will all become clear.  Right now,  I can understand the power, but I can’t quite see the use.

Update:  Susan Mernit has identified ten things we can learn from Facebook – though I suspect that no single person’s use will show all of them.