It is increasingly hip to say that Facebook, to borrow from Magnificent Bastard, is post peak.It's now unquestionably mainstream. Web hipsters will also tell you that Facebook's design direction is growing increasingly confused as it struggles to play catch-up with the Twitter phenomenon (despite the fundamentally different experiences at the core of each service). The new wave of Facebook joiners showing up in my "suggested friends" is increasingly 40+. Facebook.
But while all of that might be informing my state of mind, the real reason is that another social network is eclipsing the amount of time that I spend on Facebook: Google Reader. Reader's been around for years, but it's now coming into its own, and I'd argue that it's transforming into a social network site all its own.
Reader was just an RSS reader last year, with a very clunky "share with friends" feature that let you put, say, a post from a blog you subscribe to in front of one of your cohorts. Adding a friend on Reader used to be an arcane affair that involved inviting someone to chat on Google Chat, making a blood pentagram on the floor and praying to Lovecraft's elder gods. It was unpredictable and needlessly complex: very un-Google.
My friends and I soldiered through, however, and a core group of some of my closest friends were sharing items with one another every day. One feature that was sorely missing was the ability to comment on your friends' shares, which led to a brief and ill-fated experiment with FriendFeed and the awkward practice of emailing shared items around with comments appended.
Then Google solved all of these problems over the last couple of months. In March, Reader added the ability to comment on a friend's shared item. This month, quietly, Google overhauled the procedure for adding friends to remove the byzantine processes external to Reader and made it a snap to do. And a social network site was born.
A running conversation on a shared item in Google Reader
The idea that Google has been working on ushering in a back-door social network has been in circulation for a while now, but I don't think Reader is it. I have no illusions about how mainstream this could possibly get. I have an unusually connected group of early adopters for close friends - most people don't, and the value of a social network is directionally proportional to how many of your friends are on it. I haven't seen any numbers on this, but if 1 out of 10 Web users were using an RSS reader daily, I would be shocked at that level of prevalence. RSS is still very geek, and probably always will be.
But for my purposes, Reader is increasingly my social network of choice. If the purpose of a social network is to keep you abreast of what your friends are up to - then Reader does you one better: you stay on top of what your friends are reading and thinking about, and have a built-in means to discuss. The daily conversations my friends and I have on Reader are infinitely more insightful and relevant than anything that happens on Facebook, whose status updates are increasingly a forum for drive-by witticisms. Reader is like having a private reddit*, but simpler - and just for my friend circle.
Facebook has its place - photo uploading and status updates as a passive means of staying in touch with secondary- and tertiary-tier friends aren't going to go away - but Reader is now the tab that stays open in my browser all day.
*I realize that reddit launched private reddits last year, but Reader's setup is infinitely more appealing, at least to me. Which I not to say that I don't continue to love reddit.