08 December 2007

Facebook - caution or conspiracy?

I've already commented that I've found Facebook too much to cope with Notes from underground: I can't face Facebook any more!. Since they introduced third-party apps it changed from being a useful tool into a burden and a distraction and I now look at it maybe once a fortnight or less often.

Then Anja Merret blogged about it, pointing out that the terms of service implied that you virtually relinquished copyright to anything you posted on Facebook, so that if, for example, a professional photographer posted some of their work on Facebook, Facebook could use it for advertising, selling or anything else. Several commentators said or implied that Anja Merret was succumbing to conspiracy theories and that the threat to privacy on social networking sites like Facebook was overrated, but it seems that Syria takes these threats seriously, and has banned Facebook, seeing it as too vulnerable to Israeli espionage.

When Facebook started, it became popular because it did one thing, and did it well. It was a tool for students in tertiary educational institutions to keep in touch with their friends. The first time I tried to join it I wasn't allowed. Retired staff members of such institutions simply weren't eligible.

Then Facebook opened to the general public. It had some uses, but it also had some severe shortcomings. One of the shortcomings was the idea of "networks", which worked fine when it was limited to academic institutions -- one could limit a group discussion forum to members of a particular institution, for example. But when it was opened to the general public, the concept needed to be rethought, and it hasn't been. If, for example, one wants to have a group for the South Africa network, members of the Pretoria network can't join it The Pretoria network should be part of the South Africa network, the smaller being part of the large, but on Facebook it isn't.

Some people got carried away by Facebook. Some members of the rec.arts.books newsgroup on Usenet migrated to a Facebook group called "The prancing half-wits", which deprived the newsgroup of some of its best contributors, and made much of their discussion inaccessible. As a medium newsgroups are far better for interactive communication than web forums (even though they were originally intended for one-to-many communication rather than many-to-many), because navigating to the forum on Facebook is a much more complicated process, and there are too many distractions along the way. I check newsgroups at least once a day, but the Facebook forums I look at once in six months, if that often.

But the rot really set in when Facebook allowed third-party applications.

This diffused things too much, and instead of making it easier to keep in touch, made it more difficult. For example, there are several apps for recording books you have read. The result is that you may have several bookloving friends, each using a different app. Instead of keeping in touch, you are separated. But they will all invite you to join their app, so if you do, you would have to enter each book you read six times. I gave up. I'd rather use Bibliophil or LibraryThing for that. Their approach is to do one thing and do it well, rather than Facebook's clumsy and cumbersome "one size fits all".

Others are also jumping on to the social networking bandwagon. Plaxo, which was a synchronised address book tool, has expanded into a social network, and may do it better than Facebook, though their interface is a bit slow. But if there are too many social networks, things are likely to become just as diffused as when there are too many books applications on one of them. I still prefer Tribe.net, though it didn't take off like Facebook.

And for interactive communications, mailing lists and newsgroups still remain more effective than web forums, whether hosted by Facebook or anyone else. Even blogs are better in some ways for that. It's much easier to find what people have posted on blogs than to find what they have posted in Facebook forums.


Unknown said...

Thanks for a very nice article. I am a great fan of your blog and, especially, your linguistic, moral and rational approach to things. Every time I read I learn something.

existentialist said...

I disagree about newsgroups. They are unmoderated and subject to abuse.

meg said...

I agree about newsgroups completely -- up to a point. There are still newsgroups I love, but rec.arts.books became unusable to me some time ago. The Facebook groups interface is utterly awful, but it beats nothing (for my purposes only, of course).

I ignore all third-party applications, and it continues to work okay for me. If nothing else, it's a great way to stay in touch with my students who have graduated and gone on to other things.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite enjoying Facebook - you get the same discussion forums as you have on Usenet, but you also get to see what everyone looks like. That's fun - my mental images of the RABble were completely inaccurate.

And yeah, it's an awful interface - but I live in hope that it will, someday, be improved. Hope is such a wonderful thing.

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