In which I philosophize about Facebook more than I ever wanted to
I signed up for a Facebook account in 2007, after the NJ Governor’s School in the Sciences. One of my friends there insisted that I do so because Facebook was a great way to keep in touch.
Last weekend, I posted a status pointing people to my other contact information, disabled posting on my wall and commenting on my posts, and mapped
www.facebook.com to 127.0.0.something in
Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with people. I’m not arguing with that point (even if I do think it can be taken to an extreme—but that’s probably related to the way I use Facebook).
Before I do try to go anywhere with this, it’s probably necessary to describe how I use Facebook.
One of the weirdest things about my Facebook usage is that I prune my list of friends. A lot of people see Facebook as a way of keeping track of every person they’ve ever met, ever. I am not one of those people.
Facebook provides me a connection (albeit superficial) to people—it allows me easy and fairly reliable communication with them in several formats, and it gives me a window into their lives. There are people whose lives I want a window into, because I care about them or I think they’re interesting or I think they’re going places, but—I’ll be honest—that’s not every person I ever met in high school. I’m actually really uninterested in hearing about and seeing all the babies that have been had by people in my graduating class. If nothing else, it’s a lot of noise that keeps me from the things I actually am interested in.
The flip-side of this is that by creating a Facebook friendship with someone, I am also giving them a window into my life.1 An advantage of maintaining a sparse friends list is that I don’t feel extreme pressure to keep this window small. Of course, I don’t pour my soul out in my Facebook statuses2, but I do enjoy having what is basically a contextualized Twitter: the people who read my Facebook statuses know me and my situation well enough that they can probably appreciate whatever I’m saying, and I am comfortable being a little more personal with my Facebook friends than I am with the Internet at large.
That’s where I noticed a problem.
At some point, my Facebook statuses moved away from being Twitter-esque witty one-liners that make sense to my friends. They became either very concrete and matter-of-fact or very serious, and I noted at the time that I didn’t like the trend. It eventually felt like Facebook was largely just giving me an unwanted outlet for negativity.3
Interspersed with the ugly statuses were the occasional references to something interesting or links to something else on the Internet, along with lengthy related arguments or rants.4
Cutting out Facebook left me with a stream of things to express and no de facto place to express them—but they didn’t seem lost! Short things worth expressing adapted themselves to my Twitter feed, and longer things (clearly) found their way to my blog. I was actually a bit surprised by this, and it highlighted what I think is actually a problem with Facebook.
Facebook has too much functionality.5
It provides a person-to-person communication platform, and (as I said in the start of this post) it does that well. It has immediate, short-form (Facebook Chat) and asynchronous, long-form (messages) methods of communication. (There’s also super-short-form communication through the poke, for all those things you can say in one bit.)
It also provides a publishing platform of sorts. I already mentioned that it works like a contextualized Twitter; Facebook Notes also give you a medium for long-form writing, and then there are photos and videos etc. This resembles subscriber-based systems like Twitter and blogs, except that here, subscription is necessarily mutual.6
To me, these two feature sets (to say nothing of the zillion other things Facebook does, though games are another good example) create a conflict. The set of people I would like the ability to communicate with—this actually could include my entire high school—is much larger than the set of people I want to subscribe to my statuses and notes and photos, and that set of people might even be larger than the set of people to whom I want to subscribe.
In fact, I would be perfectly happy ditching Facebook entirely and doing whatever broadcasting I want to do elsewhere, except that that necessarily means that I give up my ability to communicate with a bunch of people I actually do want to communicate with.
I am not sure what the solution is. I certainly intend to use external tools dedicated to broadcasting for doing broadcasting. There is no replacement for my “contextualized Twitter”, but Twitter and Tumblr exist specifically to solve problems in expression that I’ve been trying to solve with Facebook, and my feeds from both of those platforms can be exported to Facebook so that anyone who cares doesn’t miss them.
But even if I outsource my publishing and use Facebook only for communication, I am still stuck with all the things I don’t want from Facebook. My “outlet for negativity” issue is obviously a personal problem, but the deluge of information I don’t want (even with my pruned friends list) is not something that can entirely be avoided.
Having complained about Facebook more than enough, I want to acknowledge a few things.
One, I don’t think that Facebook is inherently evil or out to cause problems. Its feature sets do present conflicts, but I imagine that it would not be a large enough platform for these conflicts to matter if it did not provide the broad array of functionality that it does.
Two, I think it is much to Facebook’s credit that it also provides useful intersections of these feature sets. Going from the examples I gave of person-to-person communication and publishing, we get wall posts and tagging in statuses. Both of these are communications directed at people, but they’re also broadcast like regular posts.
Tangent: I had a computer science professor once who totally did not understand that Facebook friendships are not one-sided. As a result, we had to implement a Facebook “clone” in terms of her subscriber-model nonsense. There are a lot of words I could use to describe that; here, I’ll choose “humorous”. ↩
Actually, I avoid doing so. If something has more than a little emotional charge, I rarely post it on Facebook, and in the event that I do, it’s usually hidden behind at least one layer of abstraction that would prevent it from being interpreted by anyone to whom it would be meaningful. ↩
This timeline of Facebook usage is accompanied by a timeline of personal social issues. At any point where things don’t make sense on their own, you can mentally rewrite it to “Some upsetting personal thing was bugging me, and (whatever).” ↩
For some reason, I haven’t learned that you can’t spark serious discussion on Facebook, no matter how awesome your friends are. ↩
I’ll admit that I try to shove the Gospel of Simplicity in plenty of places it doesn’t belong, but I honestly hadn’t seen any obvious relation to Facebook before now. ↩
I also dislike that you are theoretically forced to consume as much information as you produce, multiplied by the number of friends you have. This is another reason I distanced myself from Facebook, but for my specific complaint you can apply footnote #3. ↩