No, I’m not talking about penises.
Let’s talk about Facebook.
Facebook is massive. Facebook has taken over most people’s daily existence on the Web to such a degree that there are plenty of people out there who genuinely believe that it is the Web. Like, all of it.
It’s not. But then you probably knew that already.
But the fact stands that it is a massive global phenomenon, and something that has happily grown and evolved over time from its humble beginnings up to the multi-bajillion dollar business it is today.
Thing is, though, as it’s grown, it’s sort of lost sight of what it’s for.
“Facebook is a social tool that connects you with people around you,” the login screen used to say. When adding a friend, you used to have to indicate how you knew them, and the recipient of that friend request had to verify your story. It was actually quite a good idea that got around the MySpace “friend collecting” issue, whereby people would just add and add and add each other and then not talk to any of their 40,000 friends. Facebook’s systems ensured that you 1) were actually friends with the people you marked as friends and 2) didn’t fall into the “popularity contest” trap.
Whizz forward to today, and the Facebook of 2012 is a very different place. Now we get people promising “2,000+ friend requests” if you Like one of their pictures. I don’t want two thousand friends. I want my online friends to reflect people I actually know, and occasionally give me the opportunity to meet someone new who is relevant to my interests and/or knows people that I know. Give me two thousand newcomers from all over the world, all of whom are vying for my attention simply to make some arbitrary number higher than everyone else, and you sort of lose that.
Part of the reason for this change is the different in what Facebook thinks we should use it for these days. I first joined the site quite a while after many of my friends had — at the time, I assumed it was going to be one of those passing fads like MySpace, and would quickly disappear into obscurity. But I found its value while on a trip to the States to visit my brother — while abroad, I could share the photographs I’d taken and easily stay in touch with my friends as a large group rather than emailing them individually. It was nice.
Over time, things started to shift. Facebook’s big change to something a bit closer to its current layout upset a lot of people, and the addition of “applications” marked the beginning of how the social network looks now. At the time, I was of the attitude that the people complaining about it were bleating on about nothing, but in retrospect they may have had a point. As everyone’s news feed started filling up with FarmVille brag posts, the signal to noise ratio started getting worse.
Then came the brands. Facebook undoubtedly thought they were doing everyone a favour when they opened up the previously “personal” social network to companies and businesses who wanted to grow their social presence. And in some cases, it worked well, with companies able to engage with their customers and post important information as and when needed.
Unfortunately, this too lost the plot somewhere. Now, pretty much every brand page uses the same obnoxious “engagement strategies” to keep people commenting, talking and Liking — the worst of which by far is the fucking awful “fill in the blank” status update that invites commenters to give their own meaningless opinion on something utterly asinine and irrelevant to the company’s product. (“My favorite color is ____________!” proclaimed the Facebook Page for The Sims 3 on one memorable occasion. Over four thousand people replied.)
You see, people seem to absolutely love posting things that have absolutely no value. People love thinking their opinion is important, that they are being listened to, that the things they say are somehow valuable to someone.
The things you say are valuable to someone. The people they are important to are called your family and friends. Not the PR representative for The Sims 3. They don’t care what your favourite colour is. They just want you to keep giving them page impressions and comments and Likes.
Likes. Fuck Likes. The Like button is Facebook’s most enduring legacy, and one of the biggest blows to actual communication in today’s connected world. Why comment any more when you can just click “Like”? It means nothing, particularly when it’s connected to a sentence for which the verb “like” is completely inappropriate. (“My grandad died. So sad right now.” “Insensitive Twat likes this.”) It’s a meaningless metric designed to measure how many people have seen something you have posted and want to interact with it, but are slightly too lazy to actually write anything.
The diminishing sense of Facebook’s usefulness for actual communication is perhaps best exemplified by the current way someone’s profile looks. Known as “Timeline”, the theory behind it is that it is an easy to navigate history charting everything interesting that has happened in someone’s life.
It’s a sound plan. Unfortunately its implementation is just terrible.
The problem is that there’s no consistency in how posts show up, and seemingly no understanding of how people read content. Leaving aside the fact that one’s profile cover image and fairly pointless basic information takes up over 500 lines — or nearly half of a 1920×1080 display — there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason as to what gets posted at the “top” of one’s profile.
The conventions established by blogs and earlier social networks dictate that the most recent things go at the top, so anyone checking in on someone’s page doesn’t have to scroll around or search to find something new. Yet with all the sources from which Facebook can pull information these days — games, external sites, apps, Spotify, Netflix — there is no consistency in what goes where. For example, at the time of writing, this is what the top of my Timeline looks like:
What a mess, and very little of it is stuff that I 1) actively shared and 2) feel people really need to know. I deliberately shared the RunKeeper stuff because I like sharing my fitness achievements because it helps keep me honest, but I have no need to show people who eight of my friends are, nor do people need to know that I achieved Bronze Level 2 in Five-O Poker, a game I reviewed earlier in the week and specifically told not to share shit on my timeline. At the other end of the spectrum, pages that I have “Liked” elsewhere on the Internet — and thus wanted to share with others, perhaps because I wrote them or just found them interesting — have been unhelpfully collected into a single box that shows just four of them. This behaviour changes seemingly daily, with Liked pages sometimes showing up as individual posts on one’s Timeline (useful) and sometimes being collected into that box (not useful). At the time of writing, Facebook appears to have decided that “not useful” is the way to go on this one.
Let’s scroll down a few “page heights” and see what else we have:
There. After five screen-heights worth of scrolling, I finally get to one thing that I actually want to share with people — my recent WordPress posts, aka a feed from this blog to my Facebook Timeline. Again, though, like the Likes, they have been collected together into a box that displays very little relevant information and, in this case, is put in a stupid, stupid place. Why stupid? Because the most recent post in that little WordPress.com box came considerably after the RunKeeper post at the top of my Timeline — and certainly considerably after all the spammy crap those games have plastered all over that infuriatingly useless right column.
“Facebook is a social tool that connects you with people around you” my arse. “Facebook is a digital scrapbook maintained by a five-year old with ADHD,” more like.
I’ll see you on Twitter.