Oct. 8, 2012 at 10:40 AM ET
Richard launches Facebook and quickly scrolls down the page, looking at newly posted photos and then clicking on a video of one of his favorite songs that a friend posted. Music plays as Richard continues scrolling. It's "Whipped Cream," Herb Albert's 1965 hit. Richard is not 18, he's 80
When mom and dad get in on a cultural phenomenon, it's no longer edgy. When grandpa does, it's totally mainstream.
With a billion members, can Facebook still be cool? If you're talking about skinny-black-jean cool, Facebook is decidedly not. An account is the white T-shirt of the Internet. Everybody has one. Last week, when Facebook passed the billion-member mark, it released its first national ad — comparing itself to chairs. The mystifying video became the butt of jokes for its cluelessness — hardly a cool move.
But does any of that really matter?
"Facebook doesn't need to be cool anymore," Melanie Shreffler, editor-in-chief for New York research firm YPulse, told TechNewsDaily. "They've hooked everybody."
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Facebook has become an essential way to communicate — with the tantalizing potential to turn acquaintances into friends, find lost friends, maintain relationships despite physical distances and even connect with strangers based on interests. Instead of relying on occasional meetings, say a weekly class or a high school reunion, Facebook fills the intervals with what people are doing at any given moment — listening to a song, reading an article — an intimacy that was previously available only to family members, roommates or partners.
All of this sharing could not have happened without one pivotal change.
"Facebook convinced us for the first time to use our real names and genuine identities on the Internet," said David Kirkpatrick, in his book "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting The World." Facebook allowed people to share with each other without the need for a phone number, a street address or an email address. Clever screen names were relegated to dating sites and Xbox Live accounts.
There are other "cooler" sites for social networking. Instagram comes to mind, but Facebook snapped up that site for $1 billion earlier this year, which could mean Facebook knows a cool thing when it sees one.
"Facebook may not be the cool social network anymore — all the recent buzz has been about Instagram , Pinterest, and other niche networks, which are better for certain types of sharing," Shreffler said. Her New York marketing firm studies Generation Y or Millennials — as they are sometimes called — which she defines as people between ages 13 and 34.
"But the thing that gives lasting power to Facebook is the fact that everybody is on it. Nowhere else can Millennials reach nearly all of their friends in one place with status updates, links, photos and videos," she said.
More than 9 in 10 Millennials use Facebook daily, according to YPulse, and a third spend more than an hour each day on it. It's the Millennials who have drawn older people to Facebook.
"I use it because I have to," Richard said. "If I want to know what's going on with the kids and grandkids, I have to check Facebook." When we spoke with Richard, his newsfeed was filled with photos of the newest arrival, his thirteenth grandchild. Richard is now retired from his job as one of the original programmers at Boeing, when computers filled rooms and were fed with cards and paper tape. He has been a Facebook user for about three years.
For Richard, Facebook is the best way to see what's happening in his family scattered across the country. For his 18-year-old granddaughter, Amanda, it's the best way to keep up with the majority of her friends. Richard only logs on when he receives a notification of something new on his newsfeed. Amanda checks her Facebook at least four times a day. Neither of them consider Facebook particularly cool.
For a man of 80, who helped usher in the age of technology, cool is hard to find. When asked about what's cool, Amanda pointed to the new tattoo inked across her hip. Richard took more time to respond. After a long pause, he said, "I can't think of a thing."
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