Facebook is now an indisputable part of all of our lives, and Facebook chat emoticons (those little icons and smileys that you can see within chats and conversations in Facebook chat) are becoming more and more recognizable every day. It is almost fair to say that soon these emotions will be more recognizable than their counterparts on MySpace.
But where did these emotes come from? What caused Facebook to introduce these pictures into their chatting system and why did they choose not to give advice as to how to actually insert them into the conversations themselves? For the answers to these questions, we should look at the history of social networking in general, and how Facebook rose from a University campus experiment to the king of the web.
Five years ago, MySpace dominated the social networking scene. It had managed to destroy various up and coming networks (such as Friendster and Hi5) generally by brute force and power of numbers – it had more subscribers than anyone else and it knew it. It had so many people that it alerted the venture capitalist industry who all wanted to invest in what was soon to be the one true killer website for the world. So what went wrong?
MySpace became popular originally through giving people a core product which was missing at the time – conversation and communication between friends. We could all use email and sometimes chat on MSN, but MySpace was a service which brought together photos, chatting (even though it was not live) and networking (meeting new people), and they did it well. There was a problem, however. Due to the huge numbers of subscribers, some people began to feel that they were anonymous. ‘MySpace friends’ figures spiralled out of control, and people would compete to have the most. Pages suddenly became clogged with messages from people who were not your contacts, promoting themselves or their products. The admins bowed to pressure and also allowed custom CSS files in to the site, meaning glitter and animated graphics began to make each page look like a 16 year old girl’s wardrobe. People wanted an alternative.
Enter Facebook. Started on the campus of Harvard University as a way to help friends keep in touch with each other and to organize their social calendars, it quickly spread due to its clear, clean design and its simplicty. A simplicity that MySpace now lacked. Word of the tool spread, and it started being replicated on other campuses, and then into different nations. Eventually it became open to all members of the public, and was translated (by its users) into different languages. It was as close to open source as an enormous international social network could get.
Facebook succeeded in wooing users away from MySpace because they were offering that same core product – the ability to communicate. They also managed to stay ahead of the curve by not swaying from their original goal of being easy to use and to bring people together. When they introduced their chat program, people thought that they might have lost sight of this goal, they were wrong though.
Facebook chat was introduced two years ago, and tested extensively in a handful of users. People were intrigued by the basic looking client, and wondered if this ‘addon’ might actually end up being a mistake. It wasn’t, however, as soon people realised that the bells and whistles which other chat programs like MSN and Yahoo added were just distractions, and what they needed to use FB chat for was just that – chatting and communicating.
Facebook knew that there would be a demand for some sort of icons, smileys or emoticons though – and they took action. They installed several ‘hidden smilies’, each one accessible through typing a certain code into your chat screen. Sometimes people found them by accident, other times they went to look for lists online which could give them a clue as to how to insert them. Either way, Facebook chat emoticons became a part of the modern social network vocabulary, and now we can’t escape them – and why would we want to?