I went to a Facebook seminar last week. Despite its World Wide Web message, it had me thinking about Beaufort, downtown and the future of both.
The seminar was led by a Facebook expert. First, be wary of anyone who calls themselves a "Facebook expert." Want to be a Facebook expert? Take an hour to putz around on the site. There, you're an expert.
Let's be honest: Anything that's designed to be used by ages 8-102 isn't that convoluted. Once you get beyond the general discomfort some people feel for tech involving either a modem or a hard drive, getting started on Facebook is equivalent in difficulty level to filling out a sweepstakes entry. I have more trouble understanding the lottery.
But, OK, I listened for a couple hours and learned about things I sort of already knew. The expert -- who, to be fair, gets paid to be an advocate -- warned the crowd to not treat Facebook as if it's a fad. It's much too big to be a fad, she explained. Much like TV or radio or the Kardashians, it will never, ever go away.
Which led me to think of MySpace, the previous "greatest social networking invention that will never, ever go away" and how it recently cut 500 jobs -- half of its remaining staff. As late as March 2008, MySpace was at the top of the social media ladder, ahead of Facebook, and now it's being relegated to the "whatever happened to" bin of Internet obscurity.
It has fallen so hard and so fast that even my dad makes fun of anyone still using MySpace. And he doesn't know SEO from OMG.
I also thought of America Online. I worked for AOL in 2001, right after the peak of its popularity. My second week on the job, the guy who hired me and his second in command were both fired by a suit from corporate. The next 11 months of my freelance contract were spent worrying when my number was going to be up.
If it weren't for AOL, most of us would have never gotten online. For most of the '90s, AOL was the Internet. But by 2001, the company could barely pay me a weekly wage.
My point isn't that social media is a fad or even that Facebook is destined to one day be yesterday's news (although I did once tell a college professor in 1995 that I didn't understand why he was "wasting so much time teaching us about this Internet thing," so I have that going for me), but that this expert -- like so many before and after -- will probably be wrong.
No one knows the future of the Internet or Facebook or Twitter or GlipGlap.com, which I just made up but that might someday be "THE NEXT BIG THING" in social media.
There is no one right answer, which is why it's so easy to be an expert. (When there are no facts, how can you argue?) And as we look at downtown Beaufort -- and we continue to engage in the debate as to what we want it to be and how we want it to thrive -- we should keep in mind that there is no one clear path.
Lipsitz Shoes is the latest downtown business casualty, announcing it was shutting its doors at the end of February. It joins a list of recently deceased, which includes a book store, a restaurant and a store that catered to people who liked things with butterflies on them.
Meanwhile, on Boundary Street, plans for a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden were denied by the Beaufort-Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission because the buildings would sit too far from the road. Downtown can't fill its buildings, but Boundary Street has the luxury of playing hardball with developers eager to break the rules.
And maybe this is just the natural progression of life in the past 100 years. Certainly Beaufort is not the only town to see its commerce center migrate away from its downtown roots. The fact we were able to hold on as long as we did is reason to celebrate.
I'm not pronouncing downtown "down for the count" -- far from it -- but I think we should be careful to remember that today's Facebook is tomorrow's MySpace.
And as responsible people discuss the future of downtown and its best route to sustainability, let's all remember that no one -- even the most expert of experts -- has the definitive right answer.