Compulsory Socializing

Posted: September 24, 2011 by Twitchdoctor in New Media
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Pissing on Facebook

Now that is Streaming Media

An open letter to all my Facebook friends.
Is this really the best we can do?

I did some interesting things to day:

  • I went to a museum with my students, looked at stuff, got lost, distracted, ended up in a place I never intended to be and learned something new, engaged in random and unpredictable conversations with students and, twice, with a complete stranger;
  • I sat around a table over food and drink with my students and a colleague and talked about everything from writing to shopping for shoes to near misses with DC traffic to communications technologies.
  • I walked around in public with my students in the rain talking about our lives.
  • I wandered up to our department offices for no particular reason just to see who was there and engage them in random conversations about anything whatsoever.
  • On my way into the library, I spotted a librarian friend whom I hadn’t seen in several weeks and just went over to talk with her about nothing in particular. . .a conversation that suddenly turned thought-provokingly particular.

The day isn’t two thirds over yet and I’m exhausted.  Talking with people face-to-face, especially in groups, you never know what is going to happen.  Things get unpredictable very quickly and you have to work hard to keep up.  But people inspire you, provoke you, piss you off, and you feel better at the end of it, larger somehow, more substantial.

The latest Facebook overhaul (really just the first stage in a comprehensive roll-out of new services and functions) promises to leave me feeling a lot less exhausted in the future.  It also promises to leave me, or rather, to leave all  of us, shadows of our former selves.

The Kids are All, Right?
I felt distant from Zuckerberg and all the kids at Harvard. I still feel distant from them now, ever more so, as I increasingly opt out (by choice, by default) of the things they have embraced. We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better (Smith).

I suspect it won’t be long before many of the things that I did today will be looked on as quaint relics of a former, backward age.  You know, that time when people actually used to go out and sit in the same room to watch a play or a movie.  What I did today was spend much of it, effectively, socializing.  That is actually what a lot of teaching is, or at least what it can be when you aren’t saddled with the burden of state-mandated no-child-left-untested requirements that reduce your function as a teacher to that of cramming hunks of raw meat into a mincer.

The recent Facebook changes have provided us with a glimpse of a future where there will still be socializing, after a fashion.  But you will not have any choice about how to socialize.  More importantly, you probably won’t have a choice about whether or not you socialize with other people.  Because that was one of the key things that made today so special.  I had choices.  I didn’t have to go out for coffee with those students who wanted to do so after the museum: I chose to do so.  I could have made my own way home on the Metro but asked some students if they minded whether or not I walked with them.  I didn’t have to talk with my librarian friend, I could have just waved and smiled and got started on this blog post.  I was making my day up as I went along, improvising, choosing the form of socializing that worked at that particular moment in that particular context.  Moreover, the people with whom I was socializing had choices as well.  They could have refused my company, cut short conversations, talked about other things.

I am certainly not going to try and claim that I am a glorious example of homo liberatus, completely unshackled by any convention or constraint.  Our forms of human socializing have always been constrained by class, racial, and cultural conventions.  Nevertheless, the realms of the permissible and possible have, throughout much of human history, tended to be pretty broad within those larger realms of constraint.

I am really concerned that we are entering a cultural phase where our patterns of socializing are policed and shackled to an unprecedented degree, and being done so in the name giving us unprecedented “choice” and “access” and “interaction.”  I’m hardly the only one to have pointed out that the first of the new changes to Facebook (the “top stories” and the streaming “ticker” of updates) are almost antithetical to one another: the first anachronistically hierarchical and the second desperately democratic.  I’m also not the only one to have pointed out that the ticker in particular seems, well, more than a little creepy.  Suddenly, seeing what all your friends are doing as they are doing it seems to look less like being “in the loop” and more like you are standing outside their window with a videocamera.  Note: it is not about the content of the ticker.  Indeed, the ticker tends to overwhelm me even more with the banality of all our lives, an odd side-effect for a mechanism that was clearly intended to cultivate the sense in every user that everyone else is living and doing and interacting and just being so damn interesting every moment of the day.  No, the problem is the mechanism itself, updating, all day every day, in real time, makes me feel that I suddenly have an inappropriate level of access to all my friends’ lives.  It feels like I am standing in their bedroom watching them have sex.  Only I’m also confronted with the realization that most of them aren’t doing anything half as interesting as that.

The banality of the ticker is a clue to what is perhaps most inherently wrongheaded and damaging in the long term about the particular model of social networking being pursued by Facebook.  In “Generation Why,” her review of The Social Network (an astute piece of film criticism that is at one and the same time simply an excuse to try and think through the implications of Facebook itself) Zadie Smith notes that:

The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

Well, you might say, so people’s lives turn out to be really ordinary.  So what?  Again, it isn’t the content (endless posts about what people are having for dinner) it is the mechanism according to which you learn about what they are having for dinner.  Maybe we can place the majority of the blame on “the bastards of 1969,” as Green Day calls them, the generation that was all about coming together (in several senses!) and closeness, and getting together, and being as one.  That human communities survive at all has in large part been due to the fact that we haven’t had unmediated access to all the details of each other’s lives.  Why has this been a good thing?  Quite simply, because we’re forced to exercise our imaginations.  When I am away from you, my friends, I am forced to construct a mental image of you, to imagine what you are up to, what you are thinking, to run through conversations with you in my head.  You exist inside my head as a rich (the better I know you the richer) complex entity.  The problem with FB has always been, as Smith points out, that it creates a version of yourself that I don’t have to imagine but which is a diminution of the you that exists inside my head.  Now, the ceaseless flow of information across the ticker makes you all appear, frankly, tedious.  I’m sure I probably look the same to you.  Oh God, he’s written another blog post.  Yawn.

Of course, the logical side of me knows that you all aren’t tedious (although I may well be); that you are rich and interesting people.  I’m not into collecting friends for friends sake so most of you are on here because I am to some degree interested in you as people.  In an absolute sense you are no less interesting and complex after this Facebook update than you were before.  But now you don’t seem that way.

It’s Technology, Stupid!  Or It’s Stupid Technology!
I was never a big fan of the idea of Facebook.  But, gradually I was persuaded that I was being an old fuddy duddy and it was time to stop yelling at the kids on my lawn, get with the program, join the team, and come in for the big win (why is writing about FB making me channel Kubrick’s FMJ all of a sudden?).  I have honestly tried very, very hard to like it.  And it has certainly been great for some things.  I communicate more regularly with some members of my family via FB than any other medium.  It has been a great way of sharing some very important events in my life and sharing events in the lives of others.  It is very much not the idea of a social network or the broader idea of social media to which I’m opposed.  I’m starting to become even more convinced, actually, that great social media is what we need.

Because Facebook demonstrably isn’t it.

I’m sure that there are a few of you reading this that are resorting to the “Oh, he’s just a different generation” response or “He just doesn’t get this whole newfangled Web 2.0 thang.”  I’ll remind you all that I’m a gamer.  With the kind of gaming that I love, furthermore, I’ve participated in many kinds of intensely social online interactions that I know very few of you will have experienced.  Furthermore, despite my love of a curmudgeonly tone and a rather waspish style to some of my writing I’ve always tried to adopt a perspective that Smith summarizes much more aptly than I: “You want to be optimistic about your own generation. You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand. To put it another way, if you feel discomfort at the world they’re making, you want to have a good reason for it. ”  I think that should be true of your response to the generations coming after you as well.

It is true, of course, that we’ve known, or suspected, there is something a little off about Facebook for some time.  The really interesting question, of course, is why we’ve tended not to listen to that niggling little voice of doubt: “We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?” (Smith).  We of course, typically answer this question by saying: “Oh, nothing, of course!  It is just a tool.  I am a human.  I am a tool user.  Tools do not use me.”

That things like Facebook are tools, however, is simply the fiction that we tell ourselves to help ourselves sleep at night.  Information technology applications like Facebook are much too complex to be regarded as tools.  They are much more like environments.  And we know that environments powerfully shape our actions.  The kinds of roads we drive on dictate what we’re able to do, as do the cars that we are provided with to drive on them.  The kinds of buildings we inhabit powerfully shape our work and home lives.  If we think about it a little further, we also know that the kinds of environments we are required to inhabit and, more so, the kinds that we choose to inhabit, both shape and reflect the kind of people we are.  If you buy a McMansion with Cathedral ceilings, a bathroom for every room, and a master suite the size of your average European house then, well, no way around it, you are a bit of a dick.  And if you own a Hummer or a Denali and you aren’t fighting insurgents in Afghanistan well, then you are a lot of a dick.

Target Acquired.  Going for Missile Lock!
(Clearly in addition to watching FMJ again I also need a repeat screening of Top Gun).  There is a bigger problem with information environments, one that we are only just starting to understand.  Smith, in her analysis of Facebook draws heavily on Justin Lanier’s provocative and quirky manifesto, You are Not a Gadget!  Lanier notes that information technologies are powerfully subject to what he calls “lock in.”  Design features which may (despite appearances and marketing) be the product of experimentation, accident, or even mistake become cemented in place and buried under layers of code creating other features and become very hard to dislodge.  These features are then taken as natural, even inevitable, even if they may not have been the best idea either at the time or in the long run.  The more people start using these designs the harder they become to change.  Eventually they become almost impossible to change.

So what kinds of design assumptions are locked in to Facebook?  There is a bit of a split consciousness when it comes to popular conceptions of Facebook.  On the one hand there’s the narrative of the genius Zuckerberg who gave birth to Facebook like Athena from the head of Zeus.  However, that starts to raise some troubling questions so we also start to talk about Facebook as a big corporation driven by corporate-type concerns.  The truth of course, is that it is both.  That, as Smith points out, means that we have to acknowledge that much of what is locked in to Facebook, its core, buried beneath layers of other features, are the preoccupations and worldview of a Harvard Sophomore:

Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? [. . . ].  What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

I want to be very clear that I am not saying that this kind of mentality is inevitably the point of view of “the kids of today.”  It is has been my privilege to teach a number of “kids” who are certainly more mature and self-possessed than I was at their age, and more mature than many so-called adults that I know.  But what is locked in at the core of Facebook is, I’m increasingly forced to admit, stereotypically adolescent in at least two major ways:

  • a terrible, self-involved confidence: a belief that the entire universe revolves around you and the sooner the universe realizes that fact the better for the universe;
  • a nagging, fragile, uncertainty: somewhere, something is happening that you don’t know about and which is a lot more fun and exciting than anything you are doing now.

There is, however, a major factor that influences why these things are locked in to Facebook and it has everything to do with the fact that it isn’t all just about Zuckerberg, but about the fact of Facebook as a corporation.  Corporations are not friendly.  They do not “like” anything except profit.  They do not play well with others.  They do not like to share.  Ideally, every corporation would like to be your whole, exclusive world.  What Apple wants is for you to buy an Apple computer and then buy an iPod, an iTouch, an iPad (and that pretty much describes your average Apple consumer perfectly: mission accomplished).  What Microsoft would like, ideally, is that you only use Microsoft software.  What Honda wants is for you only to buy Honda cars (and maybe a Honda lawnmower, and a Honda motorbike).  These, however, are all desires for ownership based around certain reasonably well-defined niches (although Apple clearly has more ambitious goals).  Facebook, however, wants to be your entire social world.  Which is to say, virtually your entire world, the only form of social engagement you will ever need.  They are 700 million “loyal” users along the way to their goal of constituting the largest single social entity this planet has ever known.

This then, is absolutely, hands down, the worst case scenario: when the technological inevitability of lock-in manifests itself in a corporate product that is, for all intents and purposes, the only game in town.

Everything.  All the Time.
Facebook isn’t done yet, though, not by a long shot.  The newest Facebook re-design (and let’s put aside the more interesting question of how we’ve come to accept the model of a social world that periodically needs to be upgraded, relaunched, rebranded) is going to essentially follow in the footsteps of that soul-sapping ticker by allowing users to listen to the music and watch the shows that their friends (or subscription suppliers, whatever we are calling them now)  are listening to and watching.  To which my first response was: What.  The Fuck?  And my second response was: What.  The Fuck?  What possible reason could there be for wanting to do this?  Listening to Zuckerberg announce this, the answer seemed obvious to him: it was because your friends were a major way you learned about cool music and cool shows.  There it was again.  The obsession with being cool.  With not missing out.  With being the one to show everyone else what is cool and spread the word.  And, in very small print: the chance for Facebook to finally make some serious money.  That, as Smith reminds us, is what drives Facebook, where the powerful need to be liked combines in unholy matrimony with the desire to make money:

 If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

What is wrong with the desire to make money, I hear you say?  Nothing at all.  But in the other social world (you know, the one that still exists tangentially on the edges of the Facebookiverse) every single one of my social interactions is not being tightly controlled by someone’s desire to leverage my interaction (and the nature and content of the interactions produced by my friends and I) for profit.  I think to really understand where Facebook is heading you have to see this new crop of updates as a stage on a journey toward something much bigger: a Facebook world where the whole idea of a status “update” will be irrelevant because we will be living our lives in parallel with one another in real time.  A clamoring tsunami of constantly compellingly distracting interaction.

However, I think, if we step back away from our reluctance to admit that we may already be in way over our heads, if we stop ignoring that niggling voice of doubt, if we look into our heart of hears, I believe most of us really do know where this is all headed:

  • a cheapening of our interaction with the physical world: we know, don’t we, that there is something inherently wrong when someone discusses their sex life on the phone on a crowded train.  We know that there is something troubling about arranging to meet with a friend to go for a walk and having that friend spend half the time talking on her phone.  Haven’t many of us looked over at the boyfriend and girlfriend sitting across from one another in Starbucks, busily ignoring each other in favor of the fascinating textverse on their his and hers smartphones, and just wondered why they don’t call it quits right now?  Now imagine a Facebookiverse that doesn’t just stream at you through various channels as it does now, but washes over you in a constant tumult of sensation that is every bit as present as physical reality?
  • the social shut-in becomes the epitome of cool: Right now, even as you read this, college students across the nation are busily facebooking and texting friends who live two doors down from them on the same floor of the same dorm.  Now imagine a future where no one ever again need be in the same room with someone else to share music or a film or a TV show.  Sure, when I bought a record as a kid and took it round to my friend’s house to play it for him, wasn’t I also paying?  For the music, yes.  But I was not paying for the privilege of interacting over that music with someone else, nor was someone telling me that I could share this experience with someone as long as I had bought my record from this single approved store and only used the music purchase in certain designated ways and then forced me to share the results of that social exchange with the rest of the world.
  • life speeds up: one thing that came up in conversation today is that some of my students are very aware that texting and facebook and even the old-fashioned technology of e-mail is contributing to a heightened level of impatience and even intolerance among them.  What, you didn’t get that invite?  But I posted it on Facebook 40 minutes ago!  Even more interestingly, that was their answer when I asked them why it was that they thought we are currently living through the most poisonous, dysfunctional and singularly gutless political period since the decade just prior to the Civil War.  As I said earlier, I’m lucky to teach some very, very smart kids.
  • we are too busy talking to our friends to actually make friends: There are several different functions of the friends list on Facebook:
    • You collect an obscenely large number of them in order to “leverage” them for some commercial enterprise;
    • You collect an obscenely large number as a virtual pecker-waving or vajayjay-flapping move;
    • You collect an obscenely large number because you are a hoarder (maybe that should be whoreder?);
    • You collect a moderate number of people most of whom you are actually acquainted with and with whom you interact in everyday life;
    • You collect virtually no friends because you are as much a loser online as you are in real life.
    • The lesson here is that if you have a massive friends list and aren’t running a business you have a serious problem.  Yes, I’m talking to all of you with 500 plus person friend lists: you need to put your private parts away and take a long, hard look at yourself (no, not down there!  In the mirror!).  In pre-Facebook times no one could claim that they had 500 friends unless they also acknowledged that the term “friend” had ceased to mean anything substantial.  In my experience, once people get out of college at least (and there’s the residue of adolescence again: we define ourselves by how popular we are, and now Saint Mark has given us a blessed metric we can use to quantify that popularity) they typically have a more moderate friends list.  And despite the claim that Facebook “helps us keep in touch with distant friends” it has been my experience that Facebook achieves its maximum usefulness when it serves as an adjunct to my real-world interactions.  I have very few friends who fit into the “distant” category.  A goodly proportion of my friends list is people that I interact with (or at least know that I have potential to interact with) on a semi-regular basis.  Facebook helps me keep in touch with people with whom I am already in reasonably regular contact.  (Of course, the buried truth here is that “distant” doesn’t mean geographically separated, it means distant in terms of divergent life-trajectory; we humans are unwilling to admit that anything can ever be lost, and are extremely reluctant to accept that there are a whole lot of people that we drifted away from for probably pretty good reasons).  Now imagine an Uber-Facebook that requires so much more of our time to keep up with and monitor and maintain and where you are increasingly uncertain who you are following and who is subscribing to you and where there are always TV shows to be watched with someone and songs to be listened to with someone else and a snarky blog post to be written with someone else. . .  Who is going to have time (assuming they still have a job and families) for making the friends with whom we typically expand our friendships on Facebook now?
  • we are too busy streaming our lives to actually live them: it is already the case, then, that keeping up with FB can sometimes amount to a full-time job.  I first really noticed this when I was away in New Zealand and Australia for five weeks recently.  When I got back my partner said several people had mentioned that I had been almost completely absent on Facebook and that you never would have known I was Downunder.  Now, I certainly didn’t live like a technological hermit while I was down there.  I Skyped regularly with my partner, I wrote a blog post about the Tour de France, I e-mailed work a few times and used the Net to set up online components of my course for the fall.  But it is true, I didn’t provide regular Facebook status updates about the fabulous things I was seeing and doing nor did I post more than one or two photos of my fabulous seeings and doings.  That was because, not to put to fine a point on it, I was too busy seeing and doing them.  And I found I was really enjoying seeing and doing things without feeling the obligation to immediately turn them into fodder for the social media machine.  I could walk around the waterfront of Wellington on a bluesky blustery day and not feel the need to tell everyone that is what I was doing, or feel the need to feel that people needed to hear from me.  I realize that in saying that I’m inevitably going to come across as snotty and superior and as a bit of a back-to-nature freak.  All I can say is try it sometime.  Go five weeks without checking Facebook.  First of all, I’m betting that most of you couldn’t do it (and I certainly couldn’t; I still read FB from time to time).  That in itself should be a source of concern that underscores everything I’ve been talking about here.  But if you could, you would find that life suddenly looks very different when you aren’t constantly wondering where your next status update is coming from.  However, Facebook is now already so powerful and such a strong presence in our lives that most people can’t step away.  Imagine what will happen when an even more powerful and compelling Facebook rules our lives?  The irony, of course, is that again we may be so busy trying to keep our stream current and to keep up with everyone else’s streams that we won’t have time to do any of the things in the material world that actually form the content for all those status updates.  If you think the ticker is boring now, just wait!

There’s a very obvious answer to all this of course, and I’m sure those of you whom I’ve pissed off by daring to challenge your Holy Grail (if by Holy Grail we understand something that many people will freely admit contains many features that suck ass, but when challenged have to be defended at all costs) and who have made it this far (thank you both) will have been thinking this for some time: you don’t have to use Facebook or any of the features that you don’t like.   This actually forces us to confront two very unpalatable truths about ourselves.  It is true, we could ditch Facebook and Skype or e-mail those distant people we claim to care about so much.  Of course, we know that we wouldn’t in fact to do this.  If we were inclined to do this, we would actually have kept up with those distant people already.  There was after all nothing stopping us.  Except the fact that we are communicatively lazy and have fallen hook, line and sinker for the dream that Facebook and its ilk want us to dream: that the social realm can be rendered efficient, and frictionless, and effortless and minimally distressing.  For so many of us, in addition, the appeal of Facebook is finally a nostalgic one.  Obviously, with 700 million users, there are quite a few people on Facebook who are not adolescents.  Yet for so many of us there is obviously a little piece of that Zuckerberg adolescent lurking more or less close to the surface: wanting desperately to be noticed and terrified of missing out.

There is a third, component, to the adolescence driving this, however.  A necessary corollary of the desire to be noticed and the fear of missing out is that you have to be sticking your nose into everyone else’s business, trying to figure out whether a) they know you are cool, and b) they have found something that is cool.  Loneliness and need begets curiosity.  But in the locked-in world of informational technologies, curiosity quickly becomes coded as surveillance.  This relates to the other problem with Facebook, the selective opting out that we are supposed to be able to practice.  There is a powerful myth out there, one that is very active among Facebook users, that Facebook developers are just inept when it comes to organizing effective privacy protections and allowing users to control their own levels of information disclosure.  The truth, however, is quite the opposite.  There are many very smart people working for Facebook.  Facebook itself is no longer in its infancy.  Giving people meaningful, easy to use privacy controls over their data and educating them effectively on their choices with those controls is actually not that hard to do.  If you wanted to do it.  But there’s the rub.  What looks like ineptitude is rather the fact that if Facebook were actually to build in meaningful privacy controls, much of their business model, based on leveraging the content of the blissfully unaware to slavering advertisers goes away.

This is only going to get worse (or more inept, depending on how desperately you want to cling to that fiction) when the new “everything, all the time” Facebook really begins to take hold.  Because if your business model is vitally dependent on the premise that everyone is constantly interacting all the time in real time, no one is going to be allowed to opt out in any meaningful sense.  Ever.  You will have no choice but to be social.  And to be social on Facebook’s terms.  Facebook: compulsive socializing.

Voyages of Expedition
The single person who has followed me this far may actually acknowledge that many of these arguments are powerful ones.  They may even acknowledge that the picture I’m painting of an insistently real-time interactive Facebook may have some merit.  Nevertheless, they have one overwhelming problem.  “But all my friends are on Facebook!” they wail plaintively.  When has the argument that “but everyone else is doing it” ever been a good one?  Unless, of course, you are a fascist.  Or, if it comes to that, a socialist.  Wouldn’t that be an ironic turn-up for the books!  That a product, birthed in the dark heart of capitalism, turns out to be in essence the world’s most powerful socialist entity?  Just think about it: everyone forced to share everything all the time for the greater good of all. . .  Facebook: compulsory socialism.

The digital aged spawned many new concepts, most of them largely metaphorical and not a few of them complete crap.  One of those was the global village.  But now, with 700 million users and no real sign that its growth is slowing dramatically, Facebook is starting to look very much like the first solid contender for that title.  Facebook is, however,  fast becoming a global village-sized small town where everyone makes it their business to know your business.  I grew up in one of those small towns.  One of those towns where adults would always say “it is such a great place to raise kids.”  A nice placid exterior, jovial, easygoing on the surface.  Underneath, of course, there was a stultifying conformity, a distrust of anything different, an even greater hatred of anyone who dared to be different, and someone always around to report you if you stepped out of line.  If you are different, or you want to be, there is really only one choice.  Eventually, you have to leave.

Facebook is now well on the way to becoming not just a form of the social for many people, but our society (especially if we understand that word in a more eighteenth-century sense).  The choice, therefore, when it comes to society telling you what and how to be is as simple and hugely difficult as it has always been: acquiesce, or resist.

Myself, I’ve started to look into more targeted social media applications, ones that fit with bits and pieces of my interests.  Strava for cycling, for example; academic.edu for some of my professional work.  Keeping up with separate social media applications may end up being more work.  But then so is real society.  However, the only major contender (at the moment)  for the kind of one-stop-social shopping offered by Facebook is Google +, and I’ve begun playing around with that.  The quick-witted among you will see an obvious objection here based on what I’ve said so far.  If one concern I have is corporate domination of locked-in environments, then Google is one of the biggest corporate dominatrixes out there.  That is, however, the world we live in.  Short of overthrowing the entire capitalist world order which, frankly, most days I’m feeling too old and too tired to attempt, we’re left with having to pick the lesser of our don’t-be-evils.

At any rate, when it comes to Google +, so far I’m lukewarm about it.  I love the interface; it lacks the clutter of Facebook and many of its basic functions are much more intuitive to use.  While it is superficially similar to Facebook, the core design model is in fact very different.  Here is an environment whose originary premise is that you won’t want to share everything with everybody all the time.  Compulsory sharing of everything with the entire world was, on the other hand, the original default model of Facebook and they have been trying to kludge together limitations on that ever since.  I really like the seamless and largely unobtrusive way it is linked with other Google services that I already use: mail, blog reader, googledocs, and search.

There aren’t, however, that many people on it yet (although it was only just opened up to the public).  In addition, the similarity to Facebook in terms of its basic functions is a little disturbing: there isn’t anything particular revolutionary (yet) that reinvents the idea of social media.  There is, unfortunately, an entire buttoned section on the main navigation bar devoted to really stupid games.   On the other hand, the developers have been very open about this being a project that is very much in an open-ended experimental phase.  To that end you get the feeling that despite its structured appearance this may actually be a little more of a sandbox.  Certainly there is no rabid desire for connection at all costs.   At the moment there is also no advertising and I hope and pray it stays that way.  The first and most important thing in order to reinvent social media is to ensure that the social is permanently severed from financial concerns.  I can see a social environment like Google + used best not as a revenue earner in its own right (the Facebook approach) but as a mechanism that enhances the quality of other services and helps render them more desirable and more profitable: a role analogous to the one that the material social world plays when it comes to economics.

So there you have it.  The latest changes to Facebook, and the changes that are coming up. . .just too much for me, I’m afraid.  I feel like they are starting to turn me even more into a person I don’t want to be.  I would call myself an intellectually curious person, but I tend to draw the line at stalking my friends.  And I certainly feel no need to be catching up with people in real-time online, especially when I could be spending that time catching up with them in real-time face-to-face.  What this all means in functional terms for my participation on Facebook, I can’t say.  Probably I’ll be around a little less as I play around over at the competition.  I hope that some of you will actually take the leap and come over with me and have a play around.  You’ve really got nothing to lose at this point: Google doesn’t make you give up your Facebook citizenship to come and play in their yard.  I hope, however, at the very least, that this will have made some of you think long and hard about whether or not this status-updating, like buttoning, product affiliating version of yourself that Facebook requires you to be is really the person online, and in the material world, that you want to be.  I leave you with these final words from Smith:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Don’t Just Take My Word For it. . .
William Deresiewicz, “Faux Friendship” and “The End of Solitude.”
Marc Edmundson. “Dwelling in Possiibilities.
Zadie Smith.  “Generation Why?”

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Comments
  1. aegisfang says:

    Alright so I did manage to get through the entire article, Herculean feat that it might be. I had many different reactions to this. First, I created a Google + account though possibly for the wrong reasons. I like the idea of having a less corrupted social network especially in terms of who I accept and who I deny. My goal with Google + is to have a social network used purely for communicating with people that I actually intend to talk to and have the intention to stay in touch with for the near future. I seek to avoid the new social culture which says that you must accept anyone you even remotely know. This may seem anti-social, but I’m hoping that this will remove the stress from social networking.

    I find the idea that Facebook is not only compulsory socializing, but compulsory socialism to be an interesting one, but I would offer a reworking. Facebook is not compulsory socializing or socialism, but compulsory conformity. As you said, Facebook is about connecting humanity as one so wherein is the problem? The problem is in removing individuality. Eventually, we all become archetypes and clones or going with my own movie quote “We are all either kings or pawns in the end.” (Napoleon Bonaparte, The Count of Monte Cristo). But who are the kings and who are the pawns? It would seem that Zuckerberg and advertisers are the kings or at least create them while we must inevitably be pawns. This all seems to be part of the great quest toward not just collective intelligence, but literally towards a singular collective intelligence. An intelligence without individuality, but where every member shares the same collective thoughts like the Ood in Doctor Who or the Geth in the Mass Effect series. Who provides the thoughts? In a world where we are all exactly the same, what does it matter? To use another Doctor Who analogy, in a world where we are all Cybermen, why would it matter who is the Cyberleader? This is my fear with social networking, not that we are forced to share everything, but that at the point where everything is shared there is nothing to share.

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Ironically, what you say here about Google + was actually one of the initial attractions of Facebook: it was supposed to be more cool and more exclusive than MySpace. Well, at least that was one of the motivations. Another motivation, more or less openly expressed, was based at least in part in racism. A 2009 study, discussed at http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-10283447-71.html and many other places, found people using terms like “ghetto” to describe what MySpace had become. But it went further than terminology. The perception that MySpace had become unruly, undisciplined, odd, with the ability of users to create their own garish color schemes and strange page designs is disturbingly similar to the tendency to talk about “those” people with their funny hair and loud colored clothes and over-the-top voices. . . Facebook’s initial success, then, was fed by a form of white flight. What made it work was precisely its bland uniformity (not much you can do with the actual page design). What makes it work still is what Smith identifies as its faux joviality that doesn’t allow anything to disrupt its placid surface. While there have been occasional concerns expressed over the “excesses” of Facebook, this has more to do with the inappropriate use of FB in the material world. Facebook itself is remarkably non-excessive: little chance of being confronted with anything that reads “ethnic” or “ghetto” here. Hard to say where Google + fits into this. Much of its attraction right now for many people seems to be that it isn’t Facebook, and while being a negative can often get you elected in politics, it is actually quite a slender thread from which to hang a business enterprise. Maybe it is the “lifestyle” social media, in the way that Wegman’s is for supermarkets.

      My sense with Google + (and it is based, I stress, on a very short acquaintance so far) is that it makes it much, much easier to separate your life into its multiple enclaves. Facebook’s initial move, when someone “friends” you is a tellingly simple one: do you accept or reject them, connect with them or not. Only later can you begin to start figuring out where to put them (with the new groups feature; a feature that I am betting is one of the most under-used elements of the entire FB experience). Google + gives you more options initially, allows you to accept people and assign them to a circle without them every know which circle you have put them in, and to create entirely new circles in response to an inquiry from someone. And you can then easily prioritize which circles you get information from. You might want updates from family all the time, but only enable your celebrity following circle once every week or month. At least that seems to be the theory. We’ll see how it works in practice.

  2. Tony Jones says:

    You might like this:

    Best wishes
    Tony

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Love it: “The biggest revolution in social networking would be for there to be no more revolutions in social networking.”

      Of course, it sounds as if waltersthegreat, below, was way ahead of the curve!

  3. waltersthegreat says:

    Really great article. I dumped FB more than two years ago now, and I’m better for it. I actually haven’t gone to any of the competition and I have largely been able to stay off the grid. Originally, I made a FB for dumb reasons–I had a crush on a girl who insisted that I should have one so we could “poke” each other. When that interaction (which was, needless to say, as empty as my recent participation in writing for this blog,) died, I saw Facebook for what it was, and jumped ship. By the way, when I jumped ship, I had to give FB a reason why I was quitting–I selected “I don’t find Facebook useful,” at which point I was told about their new friend finder tool and how I might find FB more useful if I “had more friends.”

    I’ve found that people actually find it interesting that I can stay off Facebook, just like how they find it interesting that I never drank alcohol until I turned 21. It seems like not having FB is something everyone wants, but only people who can be resolute in the face of peer pressure seem to be able to pull off. With no research and no stats to back it up, I feel I can still safely say that nearly every FB user has experienced some of the frustrations you discussed in your article (most complain about how keeping up with their profile is a full-time job). A lot of the FB users I’ve met want to scale back, and some say they want to quit altogether, but most simply can’t figure out how their lives would work without it. I’ll therefore reiterate your challenge to anyone who has dared to read this far: stay off Facebook entirely for 5 weeks (but please do warn your disciples or followers or whatever you call them–wouldn’t want anyone to think you’ve passed away). You’ll see firsthand not only that your life still works, but also that it can be liberating to be without the anchor that is your profile.

    Most of you readers don’t know me very well (if at all) in person, but I’m living evidence that you can function in the world without having a space of your own on the internet to share your pictures and your thoughts. I get outside my apartment for social purposes, I juggle different rings of friends (some in person, some at work, some online from different gaming communities), and I have absolute control over what I share of myself with others. In other words, I’m not missing friendly get-togethers because I didn’t get a FB calendar invite, I’m not having trouble keeping my friends close, and I don’t worry that my prospective employer might look at my profile and see something that says “stay away!” in giant neon flashing lights.

    I won’t dispute that, for its fans, Facebook connects as well as (for his fans,) Jesus saves, but I can’t help but point out that that same level of connection is not impossible if you put in a tiny bit more effort. And for that effort, you’re rewarded not only with refreshing spontaneity in your day-to-day interactions with new people, but also substantially more control over the connections you make and the level to which you choose to pursue, maintain, and deepen them.

    If you keep your interaction limited to the few people you care about for a change, I can promise that you will feel the reward in a number of ways (first and foremost, when someone actually remembers your birthday for real, without a FB calendar warning). If you have real friends, they will make sure you don’t miss the party, or that you see that one truly hilarious picture out of the billions of inane and useless ones. And if you dump Facebook and realize you don’t have friends to do that for you, it’s time to find new ones. Dumping Facebook will enrich your personal interactions with the people in your immediate vicinity, it will increase the difficulty of interacting with old friends and far away relatives (but it will also increase their appreciation of that effort to stay in touch), and it will give your character an intriguing mystique that is simply impossible to attain when your whole world is out there to be seen by people you wouldn’t even necessarily call acquaintances. Maybe it won’t be a permanent departure from the software, but it could at least teach people how to use the great capabilities of social media in a more pointed way. Or, at least, make people’s Facebook pages seem less like a constant virtual barrage of human excrement.

  4. Twitchdoctor says:

    These comments are blog posts in their own right! Aegisfang, in terms of what you were saying about conformity, I think that is exactly what compulsory socializing amounts to. In the small town where I grew up it was expected, if you were young, that you went downtown on Friday nights and just hung out. There was nothing really to do except prowl up and town the 3 (and that is a stretch) short streets worth of shops be seen, swagger, cower, make a nuisance of yourself, get menaced or beaten up. But that was what you did because that was perceived as being the only social game in town, and in many ways that was true. And yes, conformity is the big threat here. Obviously there is a lot of concern in the information technology world about the proliferation of proprietary standards for many products; no one knows this dilemma more intimately than PC gamers and the developers who design for them. While this scenario may be a nuisance, the alternative is terrifying: every single person using an Apple computer, writing using Microsoft Word as they check their lives in real-time on one single social network. I share your concern that the end result is that in sharing everything we won’t have anything to share. Because, after all, the entire idea of sharing–and I think this is really important–is predicated on the belief that a) there are things that you don’t know about what I am doing, and b) and that what I am doing may be unusual, unexpected, distinctive in some way. But with the way FB is trending, not only will people already know what you are doing, they will have seen it all before.

    Waltersthegreat, I think this is what you are getting at when you are talking about the “mystique” you develop from “not” being connected. Web design guru Jakob Nielsen pointed this out some time ago, that in a future when cellphones and e-mail and mobile computing have rendered everyone accessible all the time, a mark of cultural status and privilege will actually be *not* being accessible and connected. But you go further when you talk about how much richer personal interactions become in the absence of social media. Suddenly, when you meet someone in real life, you don’t have the (false) feeling that you know all about their life from having kept up with their recent status updates.

    I think the big difference between my post and your comments is that (and I am surprised by this as much as anyone!) I’m not quite prepared to give up on the idea of social media, even if I am increasingly tempted to pull back on social media. So I’d be interested in hearing whether you or anyone else can imagine an alternative kind of social networking? As I mentioned in the post, I’m rather disappointed that Google + looks largely like a stripped down, better designed version of Facebook with much better privacy controls and (so far) no avalanches of annoying games by Zynga. If you could imagine a social network for this decade that wouldn’t degrade our material relationships but enhance them, and in which our material relationships would amplify and enrich our online presence rather than simply render it a cartoon version of a life, what would that look like?

    • aegisfang says:

      Well I’ll be the first to take on the challenge of what would a productive and enhancing social network would look like. First, no ads. Funding is funding but remove the pretense that you are trying to sell your users on what it means to be people. They are on a social network. You’ve won that battle. Going beyond that is just overkill. Secondly, include a chat and video chat system like Skype because there is nothing inherently wrong with those systems. Yes some people will use them from two rooms away out of curiosity or laziness, but that’s the price you pay to have a system of free, real-time, face-to-face, communication with somebody halfway around the world. Third, include games. I’m not talking about the Zynga games and I still maintain that you are not aloud to advertise them, but include the them. The stereotypes of the old men playing chess in the park or the old men playing cards in the lounge exist for a reason. People like talking while playing games. It gives an added focus and sharpness to their minds. So how do you this? Like the park or the lounge (yes this is starting to sound like a game of Clue) you locate it as one specific option in one specific menu. You make it a place that the people go for fun together like the park. You might even be better off not writing the code for the AI or any kind of matchmaking. Personally I think we obsess too much over people’s statuses and the responses to people’s statuses so I would take the Skype approach to that as well. Create a “What’s on your mind?” thought bubble for each person on your list. That way in a perfect world where they wouldn’t already have shared it on Facebook and had the conversation publicly played out in a rather impersonal way, it becomes a thought. It becomes a topic of conversation that you can discuss with the person if you feel it was an important moment. It becomes more social. It shows that you actually cared as opposed to just browsing through status updates the way that most people browse through newspaper stories. Perhaps even create some easy way for your friend to link you to an appropriate set of pictures. Let me give you an example. Your friend had a baby a week ago and you see this in her thought bubble. You then see she’s online and decide to check up on her. See how she’s doing and how she feels and how the baby is doing and such. She then links you to her baby pictures which are stored somewhere else on her profile. This way you are not bombarded with unnecessary pictures or status updates. You make an effort if, when, and for whom you choose to. This would be my ideal social network.

  5. Tony Jones says:

    “Web design guru Jakob Nielsen pointed this out some time ago, that in a future when cellphones and e-mail and mobile computing have rendered everyone accessible all the time, a mark of cultural status and privilege will actually be *not* being accessible and connected.”

    Woohoo! I knew that I’d make it into an elite of some sort one day.

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