Tuesday, November 27, 2007

And now, for something completely different

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow has some interesting thoughts about Facebook in an InformationWeek column posted today.

The title is “How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook." The article is much more unfocused than this title would suggest, and Cory touches on quite a few irksome features of Facebook – like those totally useless “you have a message” emails that force you to log on to Facebook to actually see the contents of the message – and the increasing commercialization of the site.

Here’s a passage I found interesting:

"The debate about redeeming Facebook starts from the assumption that Facebook is snowballing toward critical mass, the point at which it begins to define "the Internet" for a large slice of the world's netizens, growing steadily every day. But I think that this is far from a sure thing."

I have to agree, and I have to pray that Facebook doesn’t become an Internet hub. Facebook is fun, but it's a total time-killer with few useful features other than keeping track of your friends. More and more, it's clogged with irrelevant stuff - status updates from my "friends" who are actually people I actively dislike or don’t care to keep up with; silly movie quizzes and zombie/pirate stuff; inane wall posts.

Call me a Google whore, but my Google Reader feeds define my Internet experience. I subscribe to personal finance blogs, science blogs, home decor blogs, a ton of news sites, feminist blogs, gossip blogs, blogs written by people I know or just love, and a lot more. And I read items pretty regularly throughout the day (it's ok, I work in a creative field, and reading feeds keeps writer's block from striking). Despite the time I invest in reading my feeds, starring them, and tagging them for easy reference later, I hardly ever bring my number of unread items to zero. It's a treadmill, but a really enjoyable one.

In contrast to Facebook, Google Reader lets me read more in less time. Google Reader brings the Internet to me – the parts of the Internet I care to see, at least, while Facebook is like a party filled with an odd mix of friends, ex-friends, and people I used to know (to quote Nada Surf, one of my favorite bands). Google Reader doesn't have a social element, really, but that's because I haven't gotten very savvy about sharing items - but I plan to push items to my blog very soon.

Facebook is increasingly depressing and irrelevant for me. Depressing because most of my Facebook friends are not my real friends; they do not top my list of people I keep up-to-date with. Part of that is, of course, my own fault - I should be more vigilant with friending people as I meet them in real life. Or, ya know, not. Between my cell phone, email, and AIM, I'm easily accessed by all the important people on my life.

Anyway, here’s Cory writing about the issue referenced in the title of the article:

"For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there's a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I'd cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, "Am I your friend?" yes or no, this instant, please.

It's not just Facebook and it's not just me. Every "social networking service" has had this problem and every user I've spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that's why these services are so volatile: why we're so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace's loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It's socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list -- but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who'll groan and wonder why we're dumb enough to think that we're pals)."

Interesting theory and I honestly wonder if it's true. It’s true for me, to a point. Back in the Friendster days, many people would message me over the system and I met a few not-so-cool people over the site. Perhaps this contributed to me happily switching over to Facebook. However, I also anticipated that Friendster was a dinosaur with a lack of useful features, while Facebook offered a much sleeker interface and was attracting all my classmates, buddies, and the sheer number of users that makes a social networking site useful and fun.

Still, my Facebook friend list is a testament that especially when a person is young, and hops from job to job and college to full-time employment, friends change quickly. Whereas in real life, friends, ex-lovers and ex-co-workers simply fade into a person’s past, they do not automatically disappear from your friends list.

Maybe they should. Maybe that would ease the awkwardness of having to "de-friend" someone - which many would construe as a hostile gesture even if, in my case at least, it's simply a sign that the relationship is over, and has been over for awhile.

I would love a feature that automatically deleted a person from your friends list if you haven't messaged them or otherwise interacted with them for, say, 30 days. At 30 days, you could elect to "maintain" the relationship as it exists on Facebook, or let it lapse. Or you could designate someone as a "permanent" friend, whose relationship would not lapse even if you don't interact - which may be perfect for, say, a relative who you communicate with on the phone.

This feature would let online relationships ebb and flow just as they do offline. Facebook does well with the flow of relationships – people are only too happy to add someone as a friend or change a friend to a significant other. It’s the ebb they don’t do well with.

Of course, it's terrible that we let relationships lapse. We all have friends who we lost because we got too busy to call, moved to another state, got married, switched schools, or what have you. And part of the utility of social networks is keeping all sorts of relationships and far-flung friends and family right at your fingertips.

Still, some relationships lapse for a reason. We all break up with significant others, have fallings-out with friends, and cut ties for excellent reasons. And having these people lingering on our friends lists - when they are nothing of the sort - is merely a reminder of breakups, arguments, changes of heart, and so on. Sometimes, visiting Facebook feels like seeing your idiot ex at your favorite coffee shop – day after day after day.

Now, as much as I admit my friends list is inaccurate and a little depressing, and as much as I argue that Facebook is a total time-suck, I don’t plan on abandoning the service anytime soon. I like that long-lost friends, relatives or classmates can find me on it, and the site helps me keep many long-distance friendships alive.

The messaging system is still lame and infuriating, and the MySpace-esque applications (graffiti walls and gifts and zombie attacks and such) are infantile, useless, and not nearly as fun as, say, talking on the phone with a friend. But my profile is carefully crafted, enjoyable to update, and a reasonable reflection of who I am; and I like dropping lines to far-flung acquaintances without leaving my computer.

Anyway, be sure to check out Cory’s article and weigh in on Facebook’s usefulness, foibles and future.

No comments: