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10/23/2009
04:08 PM
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In Search Of Lost Time

This week's O'Reilly Web 2.0 Summit yielded the usual detritus about technology reinventing the laws that govern time and space, but Facebook's revelation that people spend 8 billion minutes a day on its service really cut through the clutter for me.

This week's O'Reilly Web 2.0 Summit yielded the usual detritus about technology reinventing the laws that govern time and space, but Facebook's revelation that people spend 8 billion minutes a day on its service really cut through the clutter for me.The details are equally stunning: 300 million+ active users share 2 billion "pieces of content" every week, requiring Facebook's home page news feeds to process 50 million operations per second. Such levels of activity all but defy comprehension. It's no wonder that the company's founder won The Economist's "Innovation Award" this year (not to mention has a net worth greater than that of most of the users of his service put together). I understand why marketers are desperately trying to find things to do with Facebook, since 300 million+ users means reaching the 600 million+ pairs of eyeballs (generally) of potential shoppers.

8 billion minutes a day. What are all those minutes being spent doing?

I'm all for wasting time, just so you know, and have lots of ways to do it; the way I see things, if I can effectively squander so many minutes of every hour of my life simply enjoying it, it makes those moments I spend creating or being otherwise productive all the more meaningful. Add in the happiness I get from hanging out, and it's a win-win.

But is Facebook an effective time-waster? I check it incessantly, but I do so the same way I used to check the day's snail mail delivery, or then my email in-box. It's fun to know what's new, and perhaps be surprised by something, but I'm not actually doing anything. It's like calling TV channel surfing watching TV; it's not, but rather some intermediate state, something that stops short of an activity, yet still consumes time.

8 billion minutes is a lot of time to spend rifling through a "news" feed. I'm sure some serious portion of that total is spent using the service to converse, whether via wall posts, email, or IM, but those aren't new activities (they're more traditional time-wasters), and I'd argue those activities take users "out" of Facebook and "into" doing them. It makes the platform's ambient awareness seem like a fancy word for describing background noise.

Is Facebook to content consumption what trick-or-treat bags are to Halloween? Does it capture an activity but stop short of delivering its substance?

8 billion minutes adds up to the entire lifetimes of 228 people using Facebook every day. That's a lot of people occupying themselves interstitially versus doing solidly quality time-wasting activities, not to mention reading books, having meaningful conversations, or doing good in the real world.

The numbers are gigantically huge, but perhaps the marketing challenge is that people really aren't there, but rather lost in a permanent state of inbetween-ness? Lots of eyeballs might not be looking at much of anything at all.

8 billion minutes a day is a lot of time to lose.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.

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