Facebook's redesign, my 2002 predictions, and global aging - OneBigTree

In 2002, when I was getting laid off from Nokia, I proposed an idea for a service that, in some ways, resembles what Facebook is today, especially after the latest redesign.

I’m not pretending I invented Facebook… My plan was quite different in many ways, in particular I planned it to be organized around family relationships first – the name was to be OneBigTree.com – with friends and classmates being less important.

I thought we’d charge for photo uploading space (wrong!) and e-gifts (right, but not very important). I also thought it would grow much faster than it has, but Facebook has artificially slowed the growth for very smart reasons. I expected that we might leverage knowledge about family relationships for commerce more than Facebook has yet – but they may in the future.

I don’t suppose there’s any reason I couldn’t upload the full 10 page proposal – it wasn’t accepted, so it’s not proprietary information. Some of you might find it interesting, but it’s really too much material, and some of it is embarrassingly wrong and in retrospect seems naïve.

The most relevant part to Facebook’s redesign was something I called “Sliding Private Newsgroups”

It would also be possible to create threaded discussion groups using those same rated relationship and sliding privacy settings: person A posts a message to the group, and their relative B can reply. B’s relatives will only see B’s comments (unless they wish to dig deeper and see the original note.

As a metaphor for understanding this, imagine a long table, with all of the people in the world seated at it, with everyone sitting next to their relatives (something like Thornton Wilder’s play, “The Long Christmas Dinner.”) Each person can only hear and converse with their neighbors, but a topic of conversation can pass down the table freely. This feature would be relatively easy to implement, and might be very interesting – a semi-private discussion space with your family, where you can meet new people.

What FB has done with the data stream isn’t totally the same, but it works pretty much the way I’d pictured it. We all can read and comment on activity by our friends, but we also see activity by their friends, so that ideas and memes pass between groups that can’t communicate with one another.

The biggest differences are that instead of multiple newsgroups we have a single group (the stream) and instead of having written intelligent discussions we throw virtual snowballs, take dopey quizzes, and share links to funny cat videos. Decide amongst yourselves what might’ve been better :)

If you were an administrator at Facebook, and you could see EVERYONE’s comments, I think you’d see ideas passing through different groups that are mutually excluded. I thought this might have been patentable. So, perhaps that explains to some of you who are wondering why they’ve done this latest set of changes. It’s The Long Christmas Dinner.

The only other part of the 2002 report that is really interesting was my opening few paragraphs, outlining the reasons for embarking on this. Again, I was wrong about the family orientation, but the numbers on aging are still relevant and may interest some of you:

The population of the world is aging. In a report released in 2000 by the United Nations, the number of people over 60 years of age will triple by 2050, with a five-fold increase in the “oldest old” (over 80 years of age.). Even in less developed countries, life expectancy is expected to vault to 75 years, and by 2050 there are expected to be 3.2 million centenarians in the world, with over 1.4 million of these in Japan and the United States.

As all of these projected elderly have already been born, these figures will not be affected by the reduction in fertility eagerly expected to reduce population growth globally. We can expect these older people to have extensive networks of family and friends. A back of the envelope calculation, shows that the typical centenarian will have 40-50 children, grandchildren, great-, great-great-,and great-great-great- grandchildren, as well as their spouses, partners and the descendants of their own siblings.

This works out to 4 birthday cards per month.

While 2050 may be too far away to plan for, the effects are already beginning to be felt, particularly in the USA as the “baby boom” generation (1945-1965) is beginning to retire. These represent the first of this coming explosion, and we can readily anticipate that in their golden years, these consumers will both wield significant economic power and will rediscover the importance of long-neglected extended family ties.

Furthermore, unlike the preceding generations, this group of elderly is relatively tech-savvy and active, existing in an unprecedented environment of electronic interconnectedness. According to the US Department of Commerce, in September 2001, 54% of the population of the United States, 143 million Americans were using the Internet. In my family alone, there are 22 members with whom I regularly communicate via email, scattered across five states – only the very oldest and youngest lack email addresses.

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