Blog Post

Is Facebook the Technology From Hell?

If you read traditional media anymore, you might believe there is a "Facebook Exodus" and it is caused by the demonic invasion of privacy and vampiric body-snatching that is Facebook.  That is what Virginia Heffernan suggests in her piece in today's New York Times.  Here's the url:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/magazine/30FOB-medium-t.html

 

Now, others may disagree, but I find fault with a piece that purports to be news but that begins with a title "Facebook Exodus," follows with a wham-o lead describing five people fleeing for their lives (that is the tone) from the Evil Menace of FB, and then, second paragraph notes (this is what respectable journalism is for):  "The exodus is not evident from the sites overall numbers. According to comScore, Facebook attracted 87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July. But while people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing some of them ostentatiously."

 

The "small but noticeable group" she documents are her friends.  Their reasons are the ones that any wise FB user needs to be cautious of.  Privacy, mostly.   Of course FB is datamining.  It's "free," right?  Well, no.  As every Cat in the Stack user knows by now, the "information is free" fantasy has been over for a long, long time.  If it is free, they are gathering information that they can sell on the backend.  There is no free lunch and no free Internet.  Even HASTAC, which purports to be "free," is free for users because its supporters--Duke, UC, the MacArthur Foundation, NSF, Mellon, and others--find that it promotes a good in the world (innovation in education, for example) that is aligned with their message and mission.  For FB, data is the reward.

 

Do you have to be careful on FB?  Do you have to go in knowing that everything you write might be open to the public someday and not just to the "closed public" of your 500 very nearest and dearest Facebook intimates?  Of course!   Circumspection is required.   And not everyone has the stomach for it.

 

For others, who realized we sold our privacy long, long ago (I could give you chapter and verse but will save that for a future blog), FB can be a marvelous "news sort."  My FB friends happen to be hilarious, wise, smart, political, and engaged---I can just about bypass the NY Times and the (increasingly annoying and misleading) Huffington Post and go right to FB.   I get a digest of what I need to read in the news and in many of the crossdisciplinary fields I work in.   It's not my only news source but, on a day like today, with a million deadlines, it's quick, easy, and pointed.   A better summary than what comes into my RSS for that purpose.

 

Is there a decline among young users (about 5% I'm told--but I haven't seen official, confirming stats so don't quote me).  Are we all waiting for what comes next?  Of course.   Is Facebook, like YouTube and Flickr, trying to find a way to make money on what, now, is "free."  Of course.   This is old news and a worthy caution.  But I'm not sure I'd go as far as the NY Times columnist in writing:  " Is Facebook doomed to someday become an online ghost town, run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit? Sad, if so. Though maybe fated, like the demise of a college clique."  

 

Sad?  Is she sad?  Why?  The whole article has been filled with the standard Fear Of New Media tropes about stalking, invasion, infringement, cult, etc.   "The Technology from Hell" tone.   I want to be warned about problems.  (And commentators on my previous FB column wisely did just that.)   If you search "Facebook" on this site, you'll find about half of my postings have warned about FB trying to pull this or that fast one, or moving across the line in the wrong direction.  We all need to be alert.  But I don't want hyperbolic language to extend to one affordance such as FB but not to others (such as wiretapping or surveillance satellites or airport profiling or, for that matter, racial and class profiling by police cruising the streets).   As citizens, our privacy is not invaded solely by Facebook. (And non-citizens are watched even more . . .)

 

But the main thing:  methodology, people!  We have to hold manistream media responsible in the same way we hold the Internet bloggers and writers responsible.   One's five friends are not necessarily the best filter on the world. Maybe the writer (whom I often admire, by the way!) . . .  needs, well, more Facebook friends like mine.

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4 comments

It's funny. I was just idly wondering the other day what the next big social media platform will be. Now that everyone's grandparents are on Facebook, it's no longer the hip place to (digitally) hang out, so the early adopters are no doubt looking around for something else. Maybe that's one of the reasons media commentators are so obsessed with Twitter. You're right, of course, that the methodology of the article is shoddy (as is far too much journalism), but I did find the anecdotes about people feeling creepy when they looked at other people's profiles interesting. They've identified a real conflict between how "friendship" on Facebook works compared to how it appears to work in real life--though what else is gossip but verbal stalking of our friends and acquaintances? I wish the author had taken this anxiety about the public nature of Facebook profiles and explored that rather than trying to suggest there's a real exodus taking place.

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Sometimes I muse on the idea whether those who seem to cheerfully produce the early death of whatever product/space/service/moment are those who were last ones in -- they were always the reluctant users, the ones who only joined so they could see someone's baby photos or RSVP to a high school reunion.

They weren't the ones pushing down the doors to get through in the first place, the ones who tried out various arrangements of furniture and still aren't completely settled, but who stay, willingly able and happy to cohabit even though the floors are a bit warped, the fresh layer of paint masking the dangerous lead beneath, and the neighbours a bit bizarre.

They want all the benefits of gentrification (low prices, edgy hipness, without the danger) but don't want to do any of the work required to work out the dynamics between the social, political and financials, all issues that are usually in direct opposition to one another. So when it breaks down (vis-a-vis actual life) they cry wolf and run for the 'burbs.

That isn't to say that the hard-won space should only be used by the bleeding-edge curators -- I actually love that my (deaf and impossible on the phone) grandma is on Facebook, among other people.

But it's so much easier to predict the demise of the 'hood than it is to work to rebuild and repair it, or to take the lessons learned and find the next better neighborhood somewhere else (nb. the last 4 years of New Orleans post-Katrina, who is actually doing the work down there, and who is most assuredly not). To sum it up: one half-baked theory is that these people know they were late to the party and want to be early for the funeral.

Maybe there is a great HASTAC tagline in there: HASTAC: Come for the party, stay for the ???

Or as the gurus in Brokeback so astutely put it, "I can't quit you." (Even if we have fantasies about it... there's a philosophical topic for you, Cathy! "Can you really even quit Facebook?")

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Last hired, first fired is the tragic motto (often applied to women and minorities) of employment practices.  Economy slows and the latest hires are let go first . . .    But losing the politics and economics, your blog gives the idea of coming late and leaving early (sounds like Paris Hilton's partygoing) an   interesting twist:  last adopting, first bailing . . .       That is interesting.  So maybe they aren't really adopters at all, just going grudgingly along!   That's not to say that there aren't real reasons to avoid FB but most of those reasons apply to various other aspects of modern life.  That said, I'm sure hipster youth (ie the under 16 crowd) will be moving elsewhere to avoid lovable deaf grannies . . . or just their "senior" [grad student] peers!   I love the new HASTAC tagline:  "Come for the party, stay for the ???"   Ah, how will we fill in "????"  

 

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This is a fantastic post. I agree with the call for greater methodology and think probably print journalists aren't the best monitors of the digital revolution. I've picked up on the ideas here on my own blog, at http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com/2009/09/things-fall-apart-srsly.html . I'd love for you to check it out!

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