Thursday, March 12, 2009

About Facebook (reposted from my blog)

So, let me start off by saying that I'm not a big fan of Facebook, and I'll tell you why. But first let me acknowledge that the opinions expressed here are my own, and not those of the management of Blog Time Passing...

...wait a minute, wait a minute... I am the management of Blog Time Passing, so this is, in fact, the official position of this blog. But I do recognize that my opinion may not be your opinion, nor am I trying to persuade you to come around to my way of thinking. And I also acknowledge that Facebook appears to be the most popular social networking site right now.

Popularity, of course, implies nothing about quality. Back when videocassette recorders were introduced to the consumer market, there were two competing formats, VHS and Betamax. When I started working as a salesman in a video store in the early days of this new medium, back when I was a graduate student (wonder if anyone remembers Video Shack?), VHS was outselling Beta by two to one, and Beta disappeared within a couple of years. VHS won out, even though Beta was actually the superior format, quality-wise. The same thing has gone on in the home computer industry as, for example, the Commodore Amiga was superior to the early Macintosh computers (both used the Graphic User Interface and a mouse), while Windows is a vastly inferior operating system to the Macintosh OS, but is far and away the best selling, no matter the inroads that Mac has made over the past year or so.

So popularity is not an argument in support of Facebook. But I will also acknowledge that Facebook is the most popular form of computer-mediated communication among my students. They tell me that they check Facebook before looking at their email (if they look at their email at all). They also admit that almost all of their interaction there is with people they already know. Many of them feel creeped out when they get friend requests from strangers.

To be honest, I can't imagine what life will be like for the younger generations who will now remain in touch with everyone they meet forever, through Facebook or whatever media take its place in the future. Previously, transitions such as the move from high school to college, or into a work environment, or geographical relocations, all presented opportunites to more or less start over, and reinvent oneself. Now, we leave a long trail or long tail behind us, one that we can never fully shake. It's total recall! This may be comforting in some ways, but leaves you in the position of growing up in a small town where everyone knows all about you from the day you were born, and in the position then of living in that same small town all your life. This relates to Marshall McLuhan's observation, almost half a century ago, that on account of electronic interdependence we live in a global village.

For those of us not native to this digital environment, for us digital immigrants so to speak, the situation is a bit different. We wind up connecting to people that we have not heard from for many years, not having maintained contact when that would have required actual effort on our parts, along the lines of telephones calls and letter writing. So there is this new drive to reconnect, which has its charms and gratifications, and certainly can rekindle old friendships and relationships, especially if the loss of contact was due to situations and circumstances beyond our control, or at least that we had limited control over. And once contact was lost, it would take extraordinary effort to reconnect, especially if the other person has moved. But renewed contact also can be awkward, and ultimately result in reminding us that there were reasons why we drifted apart in the first place (this is not about anyone in particular, in case any of my old reconnected friends are reading this).

Anyway, what I was getting at is that my students find Facebook to be very much in their comfort zone, as of all the social networks out there, Facebook is about familiar and safe connections, while the other networks are more about, well, networking, meeting new people, expanding your contacts, etc. This is risky, yes, that's the trade-off, as psychologist Abraham Maslow noted long ago, safety vs. growth. We learn the most from people we don't already know. For that matter, network research shows that we gain the most from people we don't know well, for example in job hunting--that's known as the strength of loose ties. And for me, my other social networks, MySpace and Twitter, have provided great oppportunities for meeting new people, for growth and learning and networking, as opposed to Facebook.

Of course, I could pursue a more aggressive strategy of networking on Facebook, but another problem I have with the site is its Terms of Service. Simply put, they claim to own everything you put on Facebook, every word you type, every picture you upload, etc. Now, I question whether this would ever hold up in court, but who wants to have to go to court in the first place? And I question whether they could actually enforce such terms, especially given that this is diametrically opposed to the bias of the medium, which is all about sharing--let the spice and the information flow! But it does have a chilling effect, to use an old legal/policy phrase, and it's offensive on principle.

There was a recent uproar, as you may know, when Facebook changed its Terms of Service to say that they also own everything you put there even if you delete it, or delete your profile, and they also said they own everything you link to. There was so much anger generated by this that a few days later they backed off and reverted to their old Terms of Service, which still says they own everything you put up there, just not forever.

Now, they do say that the ToS doesn't mean what it says, that it means something else, but any good general semanticist will tell you that what counts is what the words say, not any inferences that anyone draws about them. When you assume... well, I try to avoid making an ass out of anyone, especially myself. And furthermore, as any good New Yorker would say, I don't like their attitude.

By the way, speaking of Facebook's Terms of Service, here's a marvelous editorial cartoon by Jeff Koterba of the Omaha World Herald:

Neil Postman would've loved that! He always used to point out how all these gadgets and media, from televison on, were great time wasters.

Anyway, getting back to why I'm not a Facebook fanboy, the thing about Facebook is that it is very clean and orderly, closed and safe, the profiles are very quiet, homogenous, with relatively little room for personalization. MySpace, by way of comparison, is much more open and chaotic, and more in tune with the do-it-yourself ethic of the online world. Profiles are customized, so are blogs, it's all very noisy and creative, full of spam and scams and phishers and the like, and full of creative activity--it's a great place for artists, musicians, poets, etc. Twitter, while minimalistic in certain ways, allows for more personalization that Facebook, and is full of hustle and bustle--it's a great place for intellectuals. Neither one makes any claim to own your words, pictures, or soul.

Facebook is very middleclass, and that's the secret to its popularity. To make an analogy, Facebook is like Fabian whereas MySpace and Twitter are more like Elvis. Or in more recent terms, Facebook is like Vanilla Ice, MySpace and Twitter are like, uh, well, you know, real rappers (if I say Public Enemy or Puff Daddy I know I'm dating myself, I just don't know rap very well, but I know full well the sanitizing process that gives us Ice Ice Baby). Ok, how about this, Facebook is like American Idol, as opposed to real rock stars. Facebook is just so very bourgois! It's whitebread, Twitter is rye, MySpace is pumpernickel. Facebook is the suburbs, MySpace is the wild frontier, Twitter is the big city. I could go on, but I'll stop here and add a bit more in another post. Oh, and do feel free to send me a friend request on Facebook, I don't mind. Or on MySpace. Or follow me on Twitter. And of Blog Time Passing of course!

No comments:

Post a Comment