Ambiguous signals: “the Facebook”

When Facebook was sweeping Stanford in Spring 2004, it wasn’t yet just Facebook — it was [thefacebook.com]. Many of my friends who were undergrads at Stanford around that time (and shortly after) will still refer to it as “The Facebook” or “the facebook dot com”. This usage can be a jokey signal to members of the in-group that one was an early user. This also may signal attendance at one of the universities Facebook was available at early on (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia).1

Of course, this signal can fail for various reasons. The audience may not understand — may see “the Facebook” as a grammatical error. Or widespread attention to Facebook’s history (say, via a fictionalized movie) may put many people in possession of the ability to use this signal, even though they weren’t early users and are not alumni at the appropriate universities.

Worse still, for some audiences, this usage might seem to put the speaker in a late-adopting category, rather than an early-adopting one! For example, in President G. W. Bush’s visit to Facebook today, he said he is now on “the Facebook”. So to many ears, “the Facebook” does exactly the opposite of the effects described above.

In fact, at least one friend has had just this experience: she used “the Facebook” and got a “are you a luddite?” kind of response. To avoid ambiguity (but also subtlety), “the facebook dot com” is still available.

  1. Though it is worth noting that by the time of the domain-name change, many more schools had access to Facebook. But I would guess the likelihood of adoption and attachment to the name is lower. Update: see this more detailed timeline of Facebook university launches. []

4 Responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chris Streeter on November 29th, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Um, you forgot Cal on that list. I have a number of emails from thefacebook.com. In fact, I joined it before you did.

  2. Posted by Joan Griffin on November 30th, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Chris, I’m sure Cal was not overlooked; I suspect it purposely excluded from the list… perhaps just to get you to respond…

    Dean, as a later arrival to FB, not a newbie, but a member of the Boomer wave of users, I was not aware of the “the”… but love knowing those little details of history… thanks for sharing…

  3. Posted by Dean Eckles on November 30th, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Perhaps this is a lesson that footnotes often go unread…

    The reason I listed those four is because they appear on all the standard timelines for Facebook. Since so many schools were added later in 2004 and in 2005 before the domain name change (which may have followed the name change?), people don’t seem to list those.

    Someone has offered a list in response to my question here: http://on.fb.me/fgZWS9

  4. Posted by Dean Eckles on November 30th, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    @Joan So maybe this post is actually doing something to further expand the group of people who can produce and understand the early-adopter use of “the Facebook”.

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