As a freshman in high school, in the year of our lord 2002, I made a website called “Jason’s Site.” While a website named after myself and devoted to updates about my own life was unspeakably vain for the time, it was also quite forward looking: The site has a news feed, an “about me” page, and an email mailing list for people to receive updates. I intended for it to be funded by reader donations. It had a section for Flash videos and photos, a guestbook, and a “friends” page that was literally a list of my friends. It had an ill-advised but nonetheless prescient “hot or not” section that featured photos of my friends and acquaintances and predated both Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s original idea for the social network, called “FaceMash.”
I updated the site regularly and obsessively for about three months, and then never returned to it. The site was embarrassing then and is embarrassing now, but abandoning it was a terrible mistake.
When I stopped updating my website, I didn’t stop posting online. I just found other places to do it. I made a Xanga, and then a LiveJournal, and then a MySpace. So did all my friends. We posted every day—photos from trips, friend and relationship drama, complaints about teachers, inside jokes. We were conditioned to post because only the weird kids did not post. There were rarely any consequences for posting the intimate details of our lives; the only consequences came from not participating in the online conversation.
None of Xanga, LiveJournal, or MySpace managed to figure out how to monetize the stuff we posted in any meaningful sense. There were no targeted advertisements, and none of us ever thought about “personal data” or what could be done with it.
I remember the day that the University of Maryland gave incoming freshmen “@umd.edu” email addresses. This was a monumental day not because we were going to be in college soon—it was important because the email address would allow us to create Facebook accounts, since Facebook still required users to verify their profiles with a university email address.
When we were first assigned our email addresses (a few weeks before high school graduation), I was in Ms. Brosnan’s genetics class, which had a handful of computers in the back of the classroom. About a dozen people crowded around the computers and started signing up for Facebook. We all did it, one after the other. We began looking for our friends who had already gone to college. And then, we kept posting, just like we had on MySpace. That was 12 years ago, and most of us haven’t stopped.
Looking back, it’s not clear to me why we were all so excited to get a Facebook. We were already all on the same social networks. But someone—a popular kid, probably—decided that we were going to use Facebook, and so we all used Facebook.
Facebook gets a lot of credit for “disrupting” social media and for turning MySpace into a worthless piece of garbage, but millions upon millions of teenagers and young adults were already sharing every aspect of their lives on other social networks, and on their own websites. Facebook had the good fortune of being new, slightly different, and exclusive. It was even luckier to come to power shortly before the rise of the smartphone. I guess what I’m saying is that Facebook isn’t really all that much better or more convenient than having your own website, or sending emails or chats. But for some reason, Facebook (and Instagram) are where we post now.
There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.
Facebook has of course become something much larger than a single website, and has, despite its flaws, "helped connect the world" for better or worse. But Facebook tapped into a trend that was already happening—it didn't invent the idea of letting people put stuff about their lives online, it just monetized it better.
When I think about my own Facebook use, I think often about that first website I made, and how that site served the exact same purpose then that Facebook does now. My original sin wasn’t making a Facebook account, it was abandoning my own website that I controlled (the original site was hosted on Tripod, but if I had to do it all over again, I'd pay for web hosting.) All these years later, maybe it’s time to update Jason’s Site.