Thursday, February 4, 2010

You can't facebook the truth!

This NYRB piece about Facebook seems shoddily researched (either that or my memory's failing). For instance:
  1. It claims the original "relationship status" answers were: Single; In a Relationship; Engaged; Married; "It's Complicated"; "In an Open Relationship." I feel like "it's complicated" was a later addition, dating from 2004 or 2005.
  2. It claims that the site removed "Random Play" and "Whatever I Can Get" from the options of what members were "Looking For"—to be replaced by "Networking." Last I checked, "random play" was definitely still an option.
  3. It doesn't even mention my favorite erstwhile Facebook feature, the "social net" thing that allowed you to see which of your friends knew each other. I remember the feature was always plagued by various technical problems but it was actually a fun thing to mess with.
And there are some assertions that seem implausible. For instance: It even became something of a norm to greet a friend in the dining hall by declaring, for example, "I see you added Trotsky to your list of favorite authors—but dropped Marx!" This seems very far off; as the author remarks elsewhere, the site was generally understood to be a lark, and I certainly never overheard people talking about their profile updates at Valentine.

That said, this description of the decline and fall -- the growing tiresomeness -- of Facebook is exactly right:

... what might be called Facebook's "suburban period," which began in September 2006 and continues, in many ways, into the present. We can pinpoint the start date so precisely because at the same time that Zuckerberg opened Facebook to anyone who wanted to join, he launched a function that has since come to dominate the site: the "News Feed."

The News Feed, as the name suggests, resembled a personalized wire service. "Imagine a device that monitors the social marketplace the way a blinking Bloomberg terminal tracks incremental changes in the bond market," The New York Times described the new feature at its debut. But I would propose an alternate metaphor: the suburban backyard fence. Facebook, when restricted to colleges, had relied on the typically intense social lives of students in the dorm room and at the dining hall. It was possible to obsessively check the pages of a few good friends or a cute girl in your class, but you could easily ignore everyone else.

The News Feed, by contrast, made everyone and everything an object of gossip by automatically sending the minutest changes to a wide circle of "friends." Along with the pleasure of learning that a crush had added Godard to her list of favorite filmmakers, you had to endure image after image of the drunken escapades of people you hadn't seen in years. New features were supposed to screen out some "friends," but these settings barely worked.

Yes. This was a huge nuisance if you were already on Facebook and had the new features foisted on you. The problem was that under the old rules there was no reason not to be friends with everybody -- that way if they joined a different network you would still be able to Facebook-stalk them -- but suddenly your newsfeed was cluttered with, not the drunken escapades, but the vapid and inconsequential chatter of people you had no interest in.

In fact, there has always been a selection effect by which precisely the people you don't want to hear about are the kind that update their profile or join a group every three minutes. This effect extends, I think, to the Wall (the single most pointless and obnoxious thing about Facebook): I can't remember the last time someone actually posted something on my wall that I wanted to read; it's always random clowns I haven't seen in years saying something placeholderish and misspelled.

All the same, I can see that if I joined Facebook a long time after I actually did, I would perhaps like it better. Facebook does a lot of useful things: one could use the status updates as tweets, write facebook notes instead of blog posts, and use the privacy settings to get something almost like planworld. OTOH I don't really see myself defriending half my acquaintance; I might not want to know much about their lives, but I would like to know where they live, in case I'm ever in (say) Portland -- incidentally I'll be there in March for the APS meeting -- and have an afternoon to kill. Besides, the blog, twitter, Google reader, and planworld are entirely adequate as far as they go.


Grobstein said...

life doesn't have a defriend button

Zed said...

Nor does Facebook, if you have my old-world manners.