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Idea IS the format

The occasional downtime of Daniel W. E. Light

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Monday, 14 January 2008

Citizens of the web, FRAGMENT!

I've spent much of the last twenty-four hours chewing over two articles twittered by friends of mine, each of which has accelerated my growing disillusionment with Facebook. Indeed, as I will come to explain, I have decided to take action.

The bigger picture
The first of the articles, entitled With friends like these…, is written by Tim Hodgkinson, and ran in The Guardian’s Technology supplement. It’s a long piece, and well worth reading in its entirety, but for the purposes of this post I’ll offer the following précis.

Hodgkinson starts by making the point that, far from connecting people, Facebook is increasingly responsible for isolating us in front of our computer screens, on the pretext that conducting relations through their site can be construed as socialising.

On the contrary, he asserts, we are being commodified, and the relationships we individually cherish are being intensively harvested so that the economic value can be extracted out of them and made available to the highest bidders, be they corporations or governments.

This in itself is nothing exclusive to Facebook. Their only distinction is that they’re currently the market-leading exponents of this dark art. However, having established this, Hodgkinson examines who’s behind Facebook’s operation, financially and ideologically, and challenges us to evaluate whether these are people fit to be in charge of what is effectively their own country, ‘a country of consumers’.

In terms of the key players, we’re talking Mark Zuckerberg, the geeky front man given to appearing provocatively self-assured about pretty much everything; Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist, libertarian, neocon activist, futurist philosopher and chess master who recently pledged £3.5m to a Cambridge-based gerontologist searching for the key to immortality; and a host of investors, including In-Q-Tel, the venture capital wing of the CIA. Yes, that CIA.

I don’t know about you, but I’m edging towards the door the minute I find out that the guys who put one in the brain of JFK have a stake in my social calendar. Already I’m think that, just because I’ve gone and said something not-so-friendly about them, I’m going to start landing really crappy Scrabulous hands. Bringing me neatly on to…

The killer app
The second of the articles is a piece on by Josh Quittner entitled Will somebody please start a Facebook group to save Scrabulous? At least a dozen people have, include one the logo of which combines that of game manufacturers Hasbro and that of the Nazi party.

This is a response to the news that Hasbro have finally decided to acknowledge the existence of Scrabulous, a Facebook application recreating scrabble tile for tile for a user base of approximately 2.5 million people, a quarter of whom use it every day. Indeed, they’ve announced legal action against its developers, two guys from Calcutta named Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla (aged 21 and 26 respectively).

I can’t summarise it better than Quittner:
If I were an evil genius running a board games company whose product line spanned everything from Monopoly to Clue, I might do this: Wait until someone comes up with an excellent implementation of my games and does the hard work of coding and debugging the thing and signing up the masses. Then, once it got to scale, I’d sweep in and take it over. Let the best pirate site win! If I were compassionate, I’d even cut in the guys who did all the work for a percentage point or two to keep the site running.

Scrabulous is my only remaining reason for signing into Facebook on a regular basis. Without it, I’d probably lose interest altogether. Not because it doesn’t offer me anything of value, but because, following on from my realisation that social networking is actually more akin to social publishing, I’m embracing tools like Blogger, Twitter, and Google Mail (whose spam filtering seems to have suddenly gone up a gear), all of which give me more freedom to express myself, and offer more back in return.

I use these tools and services, not the other way around. They are genuinely vibrant and community-oriented, igniting exciting new relationships, as opposed to incubating existing ones or rekindling old flames (flames that generally burnt out for a damn good reason). It occurs to me that there’s actually very little that’s creative about Facebook – it’s far more about logistics.

So, could I do the unthinkable? Could I leave Facebook?

Probably not. Two reasons. One, I have an intractable professional need to be familiar with Facebook as a marketing medium, and on that basis alone I will probably never be able to bow out completely. Two, it’s practically impossible to delete your account. Steven Mansour seems to have gone to hell and back in the process of trying to do so, and with only limited success.

I have to do something though. More than ever I see myself as a citizen of the web, not as the subject one particular service layered over the top of it. So I’ve decided to try something different. I’m going to start removing the people I really care about (or people I'm already connected to through other better channels) from my friends list. Not all at once, but every time I realise that our relationship doesn't need to be defined in such narrow terms. So, if you really like me, and you hope that I like you too, let’s de-friend.

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Cartoon reproduced from without the kind permission of the author.

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posted by Dan Light  # 14:55
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an excellent post, sir. and one that has me reaching for my bookmarks bar in an attempt to cancel my facebook membership.

i'll mull on this a bit further. but if scrabulous goes, i'm gone. i hate the idea that i'm indirectly supporting a neocon by having a presence on that site. A neocon who directly supports the CIA.

not for me. chances are that i'm siding with the anti-social networking sites from here on in.
cheers dmcm. you were the first (and, hitherto) only person to comment on this post. and, you'll be delighted to hear, you're the first person I've just de-friended.

'antisocial networking'. love it. there's gold in them hills.
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