Facebook announced this week that it now has over 500 million registered users. I recall seeing a YouTube campaign about the online billion helping the hungry billion in the past. According to Wolfram|Alpha, there are now 1.56 billion people online.
One must stop and think - what are they all doing online? Facebook began as a casual way to share memories via photographs and keep in touch with fellow classmates, as well as extend academic communities. It grew to include high schools and workplaces (while adding more features, including video and applications, especially games), and finally expanded to remove the concepts of academic, professional, and geographic networks to simply consider each members' connections to other members and the connections gained collaterally via those initial connections to represent a user's network.
How does Facebook help humanity? It provides a diversion (now often blocked by corporate firewalls) for the office-workers among us, perhaps making work more enjoyable and thereby increasing productivity. Through its Causes application, it leverages its platform of connecting people to support various charitable causes financially and in coordinating manual labor to support those causes. Through competitive games that require the use of intellect and strategy, it builds vocabulary with Scrabulous, and sharp arithmetic and logic skills with Sudoku puzzles. Various applications provide users with a daily inspirational quote, scriptural passage, or model citizen from whom to take inspiration in living a more gratifying life or otherwise keeping ourselves happy.
All these things, however consume time, and while they are good, there is so much on Facebook that is bad (with 500 million users, it is inevitable that some users are offended or scandalized by others' content). And for all that is bad, there is content that simply consumes time with no beneficial product for humanity. Look at Vampire Wars or applications that consume time taking endless surveys that you share with your friends, only we can only see your responses after completing the survey ourselves... the list goes on and on. Then there's Farmville and Fluff Friends...
Facebook, as a major player in the computer software industry, has made substantial and radical contributions to the open source community, providing tools that they have refined in-house to the community at large, in order to stimulate smarter and more efficient use of computing resources. These contributions should not go unnoticed, and it should also be noted that it is partly the large member base that caused Facebook to optimize various standard tools that are used on the web.
So let's hope that those who use Facebook leverage its powerful platform that connects people in ways that are productive for society as a whole, and not merely for the fleeting fun that is often so tempting to indulge.
Registered Linux User #370740 (http://counter.li.org)