So over the last six months or so I’ve experienced a sour realisation. It took me a while to come to terms with it, but I think I can finally sensibly express what I’ve discovered: Facebook, the increasingly omnipresent social wünderkind that I so loved during my University years is now, in 2012, shit.
This revelation was long in coming, I think, thanks in no small part to my nostalgic hangover from those early days. Facebook has given me so many social goodtimes over the years that I hardly wanted to look the truth in the eye, but now I can finally accept that the incipient little community that first caught my attention in 2005 has now grown to a filthy, sprawling slum of irrelevance and bullshit, and I fear the time has come to leave town.
Facebook in the early years was a different beast – it had global reach, but its small feature set aimed squarely at the local level – college and university, with according barriers to entry. It connected the user with people in their immediate environment, right down to course and class level, and it all felt eminently manageable.
But that was then, as they say, and this is now. The Facebook of today has grown beyond a mere forum, positioning itself as a platform for everything, but ending up as an impenetrable amalgam of social network, calendar, phone book, photo album, event planner, games console, instant messenger, location service, app platform, recommendation engine, marketplace, and – by no means least – ad network. And unfortunately, it doesn’t do many of these very well.
As Facebook has permeated the mainstream, so too has the expectation that the parts of our social graph that we care about will follow suit; that since we now have access to the recorded lives of everyone we’ve ever known in the entire world, we’ll want to keep up with the activities of those people everywhere, all the time, forever. Coupled with the seemingly now commonplace assumption that our Facebook networks should be a complete analog of our real-life social graph, we’re left with a social system that rapidly escapes our ability to manage it.
When I was first at Uni my Facebook network consisted of fewer than a hundred people, all of whom I knew well enough to stop to talk to in the street; out in the real world of 2012, I now have nearly five hundred contacts, despite some pruning efforts, and for me at least this has just about destroyed Facebook’s usefulness as a platform for anything. To log in to Facebook now is to be assaulted by a never-ending stream of irrelevance and triviality from the countless contacts who I don’t really know, and many of those I do. Despite numerous reorganisations of the News Feed, Facebook seems to have taken the surfeit of available social data and disregarded it completely in favour of offering me progressively less relevant information. The “Top Stories” metric is poorly tuned, boosting items that have attracted comments and Likes from anyone, regardless of my relationship with them. It could at least prioritise stories from people I’m obviously more likely to be interested in, like those with whom I’ve interacted recently, but it doesn’t.
This sort of activity firehose was interesting and manageable back in the day due to the nature of the network – a smaller graph consisting mostly of people in my immediate environment whose posts and event invites were, more often than not, relevant to my interests – but now with hundreds of contacts scattered around the globe the Events system has become a gigantic spam machine-gun, helped in no small part by the ease with which someone can invite every single contact to join an event or become a fan of a page. The bullshit echo chamber of my News Feed fills up with near-strangers talking about their job, or the weather, or television, or standing next to their new car or a horse or their lunch; my inbox fills up with notifications of invites to events halfway round the world, and I’m increasingly minded to ignore everything. With all the computing power and historical social data in the world, Facebook remains unable to show me anything I actually give a shit about.
Clearly the solution is to aggressively prune my contact list until I’m left with only “real” friends, but where does one draw the line? And given all this data, surely it shouldn’t be necessary to do this? But it seems it is, because without it, Facebook becomes a terrifying global memory machine that subverts the traditional decay process of social connections and replaces them with a world where no-one is permitted to forget anyone, instead being constantly bombarded with minutiae about them. To derive any non-trivial value from it requires constant shitwork to maintain friend lists, adjust privacy settings and content preferences, time arguably better spent actually going outside and seeing people. And pruning those contact lists is tough, because everyone assumes your Facebook graph should mirror your meatspace one, and it’s tricky to get away with de-friending someone you might bump into again just to get their guff off your timeline.
Speaking of terrifying memory machines, the Timeline profile view is a particular exasperation that while optional now will soon no doubt be standard for all, with its grubby ability to instantly teleport back to any user’s first tentative shares and embarrassingly youthful photos. I know of more than one person who has deleted a large chunk of their early photos and data in response to this. With Facebook’s insistence on redesigning its UI every few months, the lack of control over this changing presentation of what is after all our data is pretty irritating. In the real-life friendship model we focus on the present with a few memories skimmed off the top of history, but no more. Now our drunk photos from forever are just a flick of the scrollbar away.
A lot has been written about Facebook’s data collection activities and while that isn’t such a major concern for me, it probably should be. Facebook’s huge valuation at their recent IPO underlines the importance of their leveraging the mountains of social data they retain, and we should be under no illusions as to their intentions. When the dimensions of data they have access to are combined, we reach the sort of level of intelligence governments get very excited about, and here we are giving all this information away for free.
So why not just leave altogether? That’s the million-dollar question, and the one I find most frustrating. Given Facebook’s pervasiveness, I feel like I have to retain at least a token presence for fear of missing out on key things. It’s mostly events, I think – since nobody seems to promote those by any other means anymore – but worse, more and more sites and apps now use Facebook Connect as their sole authentication system, making it even more painful to avoid having a Facebook account.
The trick, then, must be to trim those contacts back to the bare minimum, get rid of any surplus data that I don’t feel like keeping around, and try not to worry. Facebook will be around whether I’m on it or not, so I might as well try to salvage some value from it without being driven completely mad. Just don’t expect me to return your pokes or Like that photo of your feet.
Thanks to Tim Anderson for reading drafts of this post.