The illusion of connection that is Facebook is a fine thing for some, but not for me. Ideally, I could step away completely, but for the friends who use Messenger to stay in touch (with all of the privacy issues there, thanks again Zuck), and for the need to maintain some business Pages and connections to business interests still tied to Facebook for the foreseeable future. This has actually been the final bit that convinced me to back away from Facebook for day-to-day personal interactions.
As I type this, I have not checked up on my personal timeline, I have not viewed the posts of others, I have not checked for any events I might be missing out on, and in general I’ve been happily Facebook-Free for maybe 2 weeks now. I haven’t even been keeping track, since that’s mental energy better spent on other things. Not to mention the business side of things, which means I actually need to maintain at least one Facebook presence to manage pages and connect with others who follow my pages.
A large group of Turkish students visited the Harvey Mudd College campus during the summer of 1992 as part of a tourism adventure of sorts. They lived in one of the dorms next door to where we summer students were living, and I ended up becoming friends with two of the students, Ozlem and Azra. Azra and I would end up writing letters back and forth for the next three or four years, which I found to be quite fascinating and of course and interesting bit of memory to take from my college years into the excitement of Silicon Valley.
We lost touch around 1995 or so, but over the years I looked her up in various social networking tools and search engines, and in about 2012, there she was on Facebook. We both had come a long way since our last contact, of course, and we did catch up a bit with some private messages back and forth, and of course some photos and other stuff already there on our respective timelines. She had lost her dad and had a daughter, I was going through some interesting times having recently dated a Turkish woman named Arzu which was a bit of a story in itself…
Well one day she sent me a message to remind me to be sure to Like all of her posts and photos. I commented that this seemed like an oddly important thing when I thought it was far more interesting to actually communicate with this long-lost friend. She did not agree and she promptly un-friended me. That was that, apparently. Later she would either deactivate her account or otherwise deleted it, and any other flecks of internet presence she may have left along her path seemed to be dead ends or otherwise dried up. I found the entire exchange rather disheartening.
This is only one example but a poignant one, of this connection illusion I mentioned. Where before Azra would send photos and detailed hand-written letters to my mailbox in college and later to the different addresses I had moving around to ever-more-expensive apartments in Silly Valley, and I would do the same sending thick letters to her parents’ home where she still lived, and even an occasional phone call with the fabulous international call delay and associated high costs… that had devolved into Facebook messages and references to our timelines, and ultimately to the end of this reduced communication thanks to the perception of a user experience element on a website neither of us had anything to do with.
I recently came across a box of letters I had received from various people during and after the college years, and letters from Azra were in there along with letters from a few other friends, with whom I am also friends on Facebook. I decided to give hand-written letter-writing a go and put pen to paper for the first time in far too long, and just three days ago I sent a letter to my girlfriend in Shenzhen, China (luckily she can read English, at least better than I could imagine being able to read and write Mandarin). For the first time in a great long while, I ventured to the post office to send a piece of international mail, I have stamps handy (now for international as well as domestic), envelopes, paper, pens… and the effort required to use them to communicate.
I wonder whether Azra and I would be writing letters still if she hadn’t been taken in by the Like button. Would I still be in contact with so many people I have come in contact with through my travels if it were not for this Facebook thing? How on earth to settle this conundrum?
I purchased my first domain name whilst working in the Newton Group at Apple Computer, way back in 1996. It was and is, ReallyCool.com. I even had an InterNIC handle (DH1426), and I ran my own servers of various flavors over the years as DSL and then virtual hosting and whatnot became easily accessible to we nerdy types. Wordpress, Blogger, Flickr and Smugmug (together at last), throwbacks to Usenet News, email of course, and the odd chat that some friends knew about (IRC, ICQ, AIM, etc etc) were all ways to share words and stories and pictures with people near and far. Dave Winer came along and invented RSS feeds, and all manner of tech focused on connectivity (various flavors of pingbacks, pubsub, ATOM feeds to go along with RSS, and the other experiments that happened all the time all over the place in those days). You could read news in your web rowser thanks to DejaNews and the gopher protocol was supported in your browser as well…
The likes of Friendster, Orkut, attempts by Yahoo! to create their own social network, MySpace, and who knows how many more, were the beginning of the end in my opinion. Yes, fun, and I still have a MySpace profile page there (password, not so much), but we began to cede control to others even more than we had by using photo sharing and blogging sites. Now we were putting everything under one big umbrella and the days of “getting hacked” were only the beginning.
Nothing new here, but these platforms ultimately become the way business can reach out to their customers and so they become business platforms that people use for “free,” becoming the product. As I’ve written above, there is still some need to maintain a Facebook presence because of Facebook Pages, and the use of Messenger, and their acquisition and associated interconnection with Instagram and other properties. The same goes for Twitter, and Instagram, and Snap, and just about any other tool out there… if you’re a person and you can use it for free, there’s some business angle that you’re being used for to pay the bills for this service, that we should all know by now.
Facebook had this interesting idea that they published called the OpenGraph, with its associated website at http://ogp.me/ . You can glance at the footer of the homepage there and see the sources of inspiration (I myself was using DC and Microformats for my stuff), but the interesting thing to me at the time was the ability to have external content appear in this Facebook environment and connect people to content… like Events. I’ll get to this shortly, but when the OpenGraph effort was starting out, it seemed like an interesting way to connect the outside world with this growing Facebook user population. Hmm.
Today, the OpenGraph feature set that Facebook exposes for external use (via their Graph API and through their always-confused privacy settings) is much smaller than it once was. Add to this that services like FriendFeed (which Facebook bought and killed), and the removal of RSS feeds of our own content (correct me, but I remember at some time being able to view my twitter and facebook streams as RSS feeds… true? Either way, these services and their “rivers” as Dave Winer might call them, have moved with vigor to make open consumption via RSS an anachronism).
At the same time, the handing-over of our online presence to Facebook (and Twitter and some other platforms and tools, but Facebook has been the arguable champion) has made connecting with our friend and family and others possible ONLY through the use of these tools. I say that with only partial sarcasm, unfortunately. As well the handing-over of online brand and customer engagement to this platform has made Facebook the place to go to find out what is happening (Events) and what is going on (Link Posts, Business Pages, etc etc etc).
Now we want Likes and Follows (and re-tweets and shares and any other form of this new link economy) because as Simon Sinek might say, this is how we get our dopamine hit. It seems obvious to me that that was what my friend Azra there was looking for, to get that bit of digital attention from other people near and far on this silly platform as a replacement for connection more real. I don’t know that that is specifically true, but it seems like a reasonable theory, because a lot of people I know are or were in the same boat. I myself am guilt of checking for that little red counter to show some interaction on the Facebook.
It was something I noticed on a private group page on Facebook for food truck owners, which I’m quite certain goes on daily in all manner of similar group pages focused on business interests. Someone had suggested that all of the members post links to their Facebook pages, so that each of the members of the group could Like the pages of the other members. Any time the topic of using Facebook as a business tool comes up, the use of Likes and Follows and Shares is inevitable, and it struck me at that moment for some reason that this personal dopamine rush was just as much an epidemic on the business side, for small businesses at least. Was this real interaction with customers? No. Was it beneficial for their business efforts? Maybe, maybe not. Was it making the small business owner feel better to get that interaction with people in the same boat as they are? Almost definitely.
As it happens I am working on some software tools for mobile vendors (Food Trucks, and others), and so I’ve always had one eye on how these platforms handle location and calendar data, and the notion of an Event. Twitter has their Cards feature and geotagging, making it a somewhat usable platform for connecting a mobile vendor and its fans and followers for a connection in real life, and the Facebook Event has certainly been useful for this. Instagram is the new Twitter for Food Trucks, it would seem, and it offers almost none of these features in a usable form, but it is where people are going to See where the Food Trucks are [this also applies to non-food trucks, and to non-trucks that might appear at a Farmers’ Market or similar festival or faire event]. If you have a moment and you see a Food Truck out in the wild, take a look at the back or side of the vehicle and see if you can spot the Social Media Icons, which so often do not include the actual names to use to find them on those platforms! The platforms have become necessary, but are in no way sufficient, and the need for Likes and Shares makes the continuous need to maintain the presence on each platform as much a full time job as is the business itself!
Well I’ve already written elsewhere about my mobile vendor platform, and I’ll surely do that some more, but on the personal side, I’ve already seen what came before Facebook and I have to wonder if the past isn’t prolog for what comes next. The “Facebook Killer” or whatever one might call it, doesn’t have to be a re-implementation of the same giant funnel to draw in all content, but in fact a return to the days when individuals had control of their own words and pictures and whatnot, and we could decide how to share them and with whom. The tools were not unlike sticks and stones back then, where today we have a powerful computer in our pocket and an internet connection always available. As a colleague once said, “IPv6 enables every notion to have its own address,” and the hypechain — er, I mean blockchain — has given rise to all kinds of decentralization ideas.
As Facebook has exposed itself as a privacy nightmare, as Twitter has become the unlikely place where internationally critical news is broken by the US President and Kim and Khloe, as people mistake business practices and fiduciary responsibility with Censorship in the YouTube debacles we hear about almost daily, I can’t help but be excited by the prospects that are available at our fingertips, to take back our own online presence where we want to, and to augment that with some good old fashioned connectedness.
Now I need to go get some postcards and strike up my personal domain with an Activity Stream on it. Receiving a package from Amazon is nice, but receiving a letter in the mailbox is a different kind of nice, and we can still use the internets to get both. And I’ve kept my Flickr account alive this whole time…