Saturday, February 28, 2009

Facebook Follies

I am not yet accustomed to reading about Facebook in the news. Maybe it's me, but when I go to a news website, I want to read about the latest goings-on between Israel and Palestine or the status of the newest go at economic stimulus or a nice well-written article about interesting trends like KIPP schools or the troubling tendency of nurses not to speak up when doctors make mistakes.

There are plenty of articles about Facebook that fall into this category of legitimate news, including ones about the possibilities of mergers with various companies, their attempts to make their ads more lucrative, or the recent brouhaha over changes to their terms of service. I find most of these kind of boring (they're usually on the business page—not my favorite), but hey, they're news.

What bothers me are the articles that discuss defriending people like it's one of the most significant social phenomena around or the ones about the "25 random facts" notes. They always give off the impression that they're written by young journalists who spend half their workday on Facebook and then see their deadline looming, so they write a lame article about what they've noticed in the Facebook world of late. (I'm sure that isn't what's actually happening—with a few exceptions—but it's a little troubling that they give off that aura.) The articles are almost always poorly written, and their sources are never very well selected. It seems like they just ask their own Facebook friends for their defriending rationales or simply troll their friends' notes for examples of the kinds of facts found in the "25 random things" notes. They don't seem to understand or acknowledge that people use Facebook for very different reasons.

I guess I just don't understand what the desired effect is. (I think most of the problem is that they don't either.) Is it to explain to grandparents everywhere exactly what this newfangled Facebook nonsense is and what their grandchildren are doing on it? Is it to inform Facebook users of new happenings on Facebook that they've somehow missed? Is it just to fill their quota of random social articles? By any of these metrics, they fail horribly. They simultaneously manage to make Facebook sound like the most lame, loser-filled it of ridiculousness ever created and like it's a hot new area of social study vital to an understanding of modern youth. Maybe that’s their problem: both of those are kind of true. They want to write about the significant aspects of Facebook use but realize that it sounds kind of dumb when you’re not immersed in it, so they sound perennially sheepish. They try to self-deprecatingly separate themselves from it, but not too far. They take it both too seriously and not seriously enough…in the same article.

If I were a middle-aged or older reader of these articles, I would think my children/grandchildren had fallen into the abyss of a computerized cult. Why would you join this weird thing where people spy on you before hiring you, where stalkers abound, where people you haven't spoken to since kindergarten know what you ate for breakfast, where you have flair boards and friend charts and "What kind of alcoholic beverage would you be?" quizzes?

As a Facebook user / member of this generation, I cringe when I read the attempted explanations for the older crowd. They sound simultaneously patronizing and clueless. Terms like "tag," "post," and "friend" perpetually show up in quotation marks, making them sound much more arcane than they actually are. ("Defriend" and "poke," I can see the merits of using quotation marks for; these are not quite as normal actions on the internet world outside Facebook, but come on, everyone on the internet knows what it means to post something.) I guess I resent the journalistic distance here, where they sound like they're offering to translate for you the dangerous, mysterious world of teen-and-twenty-somethings' life on the internet. I always envision a sort of indulgent smile: "Oh, those silly kids and their internet toys."

A few recent examples:

"25 Random Tips for the Busy Facebook User"

This commits the sin of over-using quotation marks, of admitting only "six or seven" profiles' worth of research, of sounding holier-than-thou while still obviously being obsessed with Facebook, and of further making Facebook look stupid by implying that all the millions of Facebook members spend their time "sending each other pretend cocktails."

"Facebook's '25 Things' Too Many"

Doesn't seem to understand how Facebook works, despite being on it (people "sent" him their 25 things lists, which he "deleted"—um, no—and doesn't seem to know how to edit his email notification preferences). Implies that one of Facebook's greatest uses is "a Ponzi scheme involving fake vampire bites."

"Being There"

I thought this was actually a decent article.

Welcome to the Future

You know how when you're a kid, you watch the Jetsons or read science fiction books or whatever and think how awesome the future is going to be? You wish with all your might that you lived in a time with robots, flying cars, talking doors, and omniscient handheld computers, a world where you can hurtle through hyperspace to colonies in other galaxies or just pop to the moon for a long weekend. Everyone would walk around in a continual state of amazement, feeling lucky to be alive in such a grand time.

Then you grow up some, and you realize, to your great chagrin, that you basically do live in the amazing future of your dreams; it just doesn't seem quite so thrilling. What is probably my favorite t-shirt in the world says, "They lied to us. This is supposed to be the future. Where is my jetpack, where is my robotic companion, where is my dinner in pill form...?" We feel ripped off. Yes, there are pocket computers in the form of iPhones and BlackBerrys; robots can vacuum your living room floor; cars can run on electricity, biodeisel, fast-food frying oil, and human fat; GPS navigators ensure you never get completely lost; customer service lines use speech recognition software to direct your calls; prosthetic arms can be controlled by the brain in surprisingly complex ways; you can read basically any newspaper in the world from the comfort of your apartment...but somehow life still isn't one great, happy, futuristic party.

Probably the most obvious argument is that we just haven't gotten there yet. Smartphone technology is still rather primitive, speech recognition and production by computers has turned out to be surprisingly difficult, and some significant medical and technological advances just haven't developed yet. But then what about the myriad things that are within our current abilities but that still aren't widespread enough to have actually changed the world, or the things that have changed the world, just not quite in the ways we expected?

I blame capitalism. I don't think anyone even envisioned our portable computer-things belonging to one of a few big brands that are based on proprietary platforms and compete with each other, and I'm pretty positive nobody ever envisioned that access to the awesome futuristic technology would be dependent on a $60+ monthly contract. And who would have thought that we would have the technology to make significantly more efficient cars but that consumers would still prefer SUVs? Even throwing aside the various alternative fuel sources for cars, at this very moment, we have the ability to make cars vastly more efficient than they are. (Europe's average MPG is twice the U.S.'s—40 vs. 20.) Somehow I feel that the constant competition to make a profit undercuts the desire to actually make the best possible product. I guess the significant point is that most futuristic books and movies take place long after some great unification of the world's governments or, at the very least, take place in a world with a few very strong governments. In this case, there is most likely a concerted unified effort to provide basically the same products (or at least different versions that can easily interact with each other) to most if not all citizens for a reasonable one-time purchase price. Similarly, futuristic worlds always have long ago run into a giant energy crisis, and it seems everyone wants to live in a very efficient, well-planned way. It seems the lesson is that the awesome future we always dreamed of is dependent on a benign socialism of sorts, and most of all, it's dependent on a government that encourages research and development in a big way. Either that or a giant, hopefully also benign, behemoth world corporation.

I'm betting on Google.