The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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I have mixed feelings about Facebook.

I’m not going to recount the long insomniac thought trail that led me here, but suffice it to say I ended up thinking about mission statements early this morning. Google’s came immediately to mind: To organize the world’s information, and make it universally accessible and searchable. I’m not sure what Twitter’s mission statement might be, but a benign one didn’t take too long to present itself: To enable a layer of concise observations on top of the world. (Wordsmiths, have at that one.)

I got completely stuck trying to think of a mission for Facebook that didn’t sound like vaguely malevolent marketing b.s. To make everything about you public? To connect you with everyone you know?

When I read Zadie Smith’s essay as an indictment of Facebook – its values, its defaults, and its tendencies – rather than the “generation” it defines, her criticisms suddenly seem a lot more cogent to me. I realized that I actually am quite ambivalent about Facebook. I thought it was worth exploring why.

I was thinking about the ways social software has changed my experience of the world. The first world-altering technology my mind summoned was Google Maps (especially its mobile manifestation), and at the thought of it, all the pleasure centers of my brain instantly lit up. Google Maps, of course, has its problems, errors, frustrating defaults, troubling implications – but these seem so far outweighed by the delights and advantages it’s delivered over the years that I can unequivocally state I love this software.

I recently had an exchange with my friend Wes about whether Google Maps, by making it so difficult to lose your way, also made it difficult to stumble into serendipity. I walked away thinking that what Google Maps enabled – the expectation that I can just leave my house, walk or drive, and search for anything I could want as I go – enabled much more serendipity than it forestalled. It’s eliminated most of the difficulties that might have prevented me from wandering through neighborhoods in DC, running around San Francisco, road-tripping across New England. And it demands very little of me, and imposes very little upon me. (One imposition, for example: All the buildings I’ve lived in have been photographed on Street View. I’m happy to abide by this invasion of privacy, because without it, I wouldn’t have found the place I live in today.) For me, Google Maps is basically an unalloyed social good.

Google has been very prolific with these sorts of products – things that bring me overwhelming usefulness with much less tangible concern. Google Search itself is, of course, a masterpiece. News Search, Gmail, Reader, Docs, Chrome, Android, Voice – even failed experiments such as Wave – I find that these things have heightened what I expect software to do for me. They have made the Internet more useful, information more accessible, and generally, life more pleasurable.

I was trying to think of a Facebook product that ameliorated my life in some similar way, and the first thing to come to mind was Photos. Facebook Photos created for me the expectation that every snapshot, every captured moment, would be shared and tagged for later retrieval. At my fifth college reunion, I made a point of taking photos with every classmate I wanted to reconnect with on Facebook. When I go home and tag my photos, I told my buddies, it will remind you that we should catch up. And it worked like a charm! I reconnected with dozens of old friends on Facebook, and now I see their updates scrolling by regularly, each one producing a tinge of warmth and good feelings.

But the dark side of Facebook Photos almost immediately presented itself as well. For me, the service has replaced the notion of a photograph as a shared, treasured moment with the reality of a photograph as a public event. I realized all of a sudden that I can’t remember the last time I took a candid photo. Look through my photos, and even those moments you might call “candid” are actually posed. I can’t sit for a picture without expecting that the photo will be publicized. Not merely made public – my public Flickr stream never provoked this sense – publicized. And although this is merely a default, easily overridden, to do so often feels like an overreaction. To go to a friend’s photo of me and untag myself, or to make myself untaggable, feels like I’m basically negating the purpose of Facebook Photos. The product exists so these images might be publicized. And increasingly, Facebook seems to be what photos are for.

Of course that’s not true. I also suddenly realized that I’ve been quietly stowing away a secret cache of images on my phone – a shot of Bryan sleeping, our cat Otis in a grocery bag, an early-morning sunlit sky – that are quickly becoming the most treasured images I possess, the ones I return to again and again.

Perhaps Facebook Photos has made my private treasure trove more valuable.

I use Facebook Photos as an example first because it’s the part of the service that’s most significantly altered my experience of the world, but also because I think it reflects something about the software’s ethos. That dumb, relentless publicness of photos on Facebook doesn’t have to be the default. Photos, by default, could be accessible only to users tagged in a set, for example, not publicized to all my friends and their friends. I’m not even sure that’s an option. (My privacy settings allow most users to see only my photos, not photos I’m tagged in. But I’m not sure what that even means. When another friend shares a photo publicly, and I’m tagged in it, I’m fairly certain our friends see that information.)

Facebook engineered the photo-sharing system in such a way as to maximize exposure rather than, say, utility. For Facebook, possibly, exposure is utility.* I think that characterizes most of the choices that underpin Facebook’s products. With most of the other social software products I use – the Google suite, WordPress, Twitter, Flickr, Dropbox, etc. – I am constantly aware of and grateful for the many ways the software is serving me. With Facebook, I’m persistently reminded that I am always serving it – feeding an endless stream of information to the insatiable hive, creating the world’s most perfect consumer profile of myself.

I don’t trust Google for a second, but I value it immensely. I trust Facebook less, and I’m growing more ambivalent about its value.

I don’t think I want to give up Facebook. I value the connections it offers, however shallow they are. I enjoy looking at photos of my friends. I like knowing people’s birthdays.

But I am wary of it, its values and its defaults. How it’s changing my expectations and my experience of the world.

* Thought added post-publication.


Yes! ‘Perhaps Facebook Photos has made my private treasure trove more valuable.’ Love the image(s) of a secret stash of photos just for you.

Jaime says…

I too am ambivalent about Facebook. Yes, I get warm fuzzies from reconnecting, but the more I reconnect, the more I have to mange these connections and monitor my actions.

Sometimes, reconnecting exposes you to very raw narratives of despair. Failed relationships, kids with cancer, animal abuse — floodgates of grief come crashing in without warning. Sometimes, friends use their posts like a teenage diary — every slight and nuance over analyzed for sympathy and attention.

As a private person, Facebook feels very noisy and nosey. I feel trapped at a party full of guests over-sharing their deepest darkest thoughts while the host is watching the event from a panic room in the basement. If I want a drink or a turn at Rock Band, I have to give away more of my privacy.

But, this is Facebook at it’s very worst. There are moments of beauty.

As a web designer and consultant, I’ve seen it work wonders for small, start-up businesses. My best friend’s chocolate shop offered a narrative of hope. A beloved editor, she took a buyout from our local paper to live her dream. Her updates — some funny, some discouraging — offered inspiration to others in the newsroom. When she opened her business two years later, her chocolate shop felt like my chocolate shop.

Like a gambler playing the slots, these few moments of triumph keep me coming back to Facebook. Yes, the odds favor the house, but I need pull the lever just one more time.

Mark says…

For me, Facebook’s only value is its users. There are so many people whom I cannot conveniently contact except through that particular walled garden. Email goes unchecked, phone calls are a pain, and they don’t know the difference between instant messaging and a hole in the ground, but Facebook is a cunning psychological trap for its users which ensures that they’ll be reachable whenever I need them to be.

I’m going to drag my family into the digital age if it kills them. Or me.

Matt P says…

Facebook’s unofficial mission statement is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Interestingly, Google’s mission statement is about organizing something that already exists: the world’s information. Your proposed mission statement for Twitter is about creating something new: a commentary layer for the world.

Facebook’s statement is about changing the world. Make the world more open and more connected — whether it likes it or not.

Matt’s thoughts come remarkably close to precisely mirroring my own. I once read that the FB business model was “to take your friends hostage,” and it always has that slightly malevolent feel to me. I use it I a measured way, don’t trust it, don’t like it. But I use it.

I’ve had similar long trains of thought about Facebook Photos. The tyranny of the the new transparency. The night the Giants won the World Series I saw this young college girl, extremely drunk, decide to disrobe and pose for a photo. Where in the recent past that shirtless photo might have only served to block her access into careers in elected office, these days you have to expect that they could cast a critical light on her interviewing in just about any field.

I asked myself – Is there a generation of young people, in high school and college today, who will see their careers limited by the lack of widely-understood ethics for online/in-life recording/distribution? Are they learning the lessons their younger siblings will later see as second nature?

(I’ll leave off my distrust and annoyance with Facebook the company, no need to write a comment longer than the original post.)

Matt P says…

Actually, I wonder if the change will go the other way — a generation of young people who consider it normal to have at least one compromising photo in circulation, and wonder at the prudery of those who don’t.

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