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Piling on Facebook

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In the wake of Facebook’s over-hyped and overpriced IPO, we’ve been hearing a chorus of voices singing the social network’s death. But actually, the dirge started earlier in the year. Jill Kennedy wrote this great fairy tale, and then this more strident protest piece. And that’s just one blogger. A quick Google search on the fortunes of Facebook, as an investment or otherwise, will give any doubter plenty to read.

As many note, Facebook’s been dying from a value point of view for some time. I’ve been a member since 2008, so I’m not an early adopter, but it used to be better. It was a connection to friends, and new and fresh, open and free from protocol and ritual. Now, it’s a crapshoot of shooting the crap.

To quote another Jill Kennedy post:

“My Facebook experience now is basically the same five people posting the same boring crap.

“The Bored Office Worker who posts about “needing coffee” – and “can’t wait for Happy Hour!”

“The Super Mom who claims every morning – “Went to 8 museums adn made banana bread all before 10am!  My kids are awesome and sooooo funny!”

“The Quoter who searches quotation websites looking for some daily affirmation that will get about 15 “Likes” and a few “I’m going to use that!” replies.

“The Reviewer who writes stuff like “Smoke Monster?  Shit Monster if you ask me!”

“The Pissed Off Traveler with daily pearls like “10 hours on the tarmac!” and “Yet another delay, thank you American Airlines!””

So true.

For me, my two biggest issues with Facebook now are that 1) it’s defiled the sacred word “friend” and 2) it’s missed the biggest sociocultural opportunity it had, that is to stimulate meaningful, self-expressive conversation between real human beings.

First, the “friend” issue:

Facebook has redefined and thereby diminished the concept of “friend.” How many of us have “friends” on Facebook we would have previously, more properly, called acquaintances, colleagues or former classmates? As far as Facebook goes, it might be more useful to consider our “friends” content streams (like RSS feeds from online publications). Let’s face it, most of what we do with our friends is to read and sometimes to comment on their posted content. “Friendship” is just about equivalent now to “Likeship,” where each relationship amounts to permission to broadcast to me. It can be an endless stream of smart-ass e-card images, news on Coke products and events, or posts on how your day is going.

In light of this, it may be that we’re using Facebook the wrong way.  If “friends” are just personal content streams, and very little more, the way to get the most value from Facebook may be to simply find personal content streams we like and subscribe to them, whether or not we’ve met that person. We should also “unfriend” every content stream that does not interest us, no matter the fact that we worked with or attended high school with that person 20 years ago. And then, in parallel, perhaps we should invent a new word for people (if we still have any) who we know well, care about, and with whom we share some measure of mutual resonance. The word “friend” no longer means that kind of person, so we may need a new word.

Second, the meaningful conversation issue:

I don’t know about you, but my Facebook friend collection is filled with true friends, old acquaintances, former coworkers, old classmates, family, and so on. It’s a diverse group, who have little in common but the link to me; i.e., their presence in my friend collection. When I float out something I’ve thought about or a topic of any depth, I get one of three results: 1) complete radio silence; 2) a smart-ass comment that deflects or avoids the topic; or 3) a handful of likes. The same thing happens when I comment with any thoughtfulness to the posts of others. In fairness, I have received a message or two over the years on topics, but literally just one or two. On Facebook itself, no conversation, no opposing points of view, no debate or insight, of any depth.

But post a picture of your kid, and you’ll get comments, most of which are predictable and shallow too.

So are we all so mindless? Are we afraid to speak our minds? Maybe we’re too busy to say more than the fact that we just got a blueberry scone from Starbucks? Do I need different “friends?” Well, we know Facebook commercializes our data, we suspect it has links to the FBI and CIA, and we certainly know that employers troll our pages in order to judge us. So I like to believe it’s because we’re chickenshit. The shallow conclusion is just too painful. So Facebook comments and postings are basically the polite and vapid banter of citizens living under the panopticon of a police state. Useless, harmless content.

What an awesome opportunity for a global net of productive communication we’ve missed here. There could have been all kinds of interest groups, poetry, collaborative novels, new philosophies, political action, and more. Some of this stuff does happen, I know, but it happens in remote niches. It doesn’t happen in the person-to-person context that dominates Facebook.

Of course, the reasons why Facebook is crap now have to do with commerce, privacy and all the compromises Facebook has made to grow and enrich itself. But another part of it is us: we must suck. We must be cowards. We’ve surrendered the sacred human bonds of friendship and open interpersonal dialogue to big data, big business and the governmental domestic security apparatus.

And now that the Facebook era is beginning to end, what next?

I hope it’s secure networks of real people with real minds, who are free, safe and interesting enough to generate content worth consuming. Maybe like old-school bulletin boards or certain obscure enthusiast forums. If there’s a social network with depth now, please let me know.

Author: Eric Kingsbury

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