Monday, June 04, 2007

I don't really like it when people write about Facebook, especially in the papers. It seems rather like jumping on the bandwagon, or worse, risking scaring everybody off. There's the inevitable fate becoming so popular that it becomes hijacked by the PR companies and eventually brought up by some media mogul who can take our data and manipulate us in all sorts of wicked ways. There's also the tedium of journalists blatantly putting together stories from their desks based on nothing more revelatory than the fact that 'celebrities' have friends in 'real life'! And we can find them seven degrees away through our own friends! Hold the front page!

But it is worth writing about, so forgive me for a post. I've done my fair share of evangelising and physically forcing people to sign up to the site ever since falling for the newsfeeds that make it so alluring to come back to and so easy to update. Most of the sites I've dragged friends onto have proven difficult to maintain and even that simplest of communication tools, email, has ground to a halt under sheer weight. I know I'm not alone in rarely reading them properly anymore and in spending far more time sorting my inbox into neat folders designed to manage time than actually ever getting round to responding. As a very useful article once said, all 'action' trays, whether physical or virtual, are simply there to hold everything until it has become old enough not to matter anymore. Which in today's world is about four hours.

But that's another issue. For now, Facebook is in a honeymoon period. As every social networking tool has tried but only Facebook actually appears to be succeeding in, it is providing millions of people with an eco-system for trivial interactions and passing viewpoints (OK, that might be a good description for all the web, but this one presents it particularly well). I think it is those in their twenties and thirties for whom this is going to be most significant - the point when its members are old enough to have children in their twenties or thirties could, I suspect, signal the exodus. This audience needed a lot of persuading to sign-up, unlike the sparrow-like hoards of teenagers who will sign up to a Nigerian lottery site if the rest of their class does. Some of this audience have never really experienced internet addiction before on this level, the quick fix that comes with a snippet of information that you can respond to just as quickly. Others have been addicted for years and are just glad other people have now joined them.

I was very pleased to read the story today of workers in a law firm who just won back their right to access Facebook, particularly after commiserating with a friend who has just been banned and will now miss out on the hours of newsfeed that reel away other bored friends' status updates and public wall gossip. It is positive that that people are demanding their right to this interaction because while it may be trivial, it is no less so than the smalltalk workers make around the watercooler. At least on Facebook people have, to a greater or lesser extent depending on their personal definition of what constitutes a 'friend', chosen to be in touch with that person rather than accidentally ending up in an office with them. Now I'm lucky to have had wonderful colleagues for the last few years but know plenty of people work in environments that are little better than Stalinist states. The ones who ban Facebook, for example (you know who you are). This particular law firm, backing down, came out with some spurious excuse about video streaming on Facebook taking all their bandwidth. You might ask yourself what else is broadband for? Then you might remember that few people upload videos to Facebook and the real culprit of such bandwidth-banditry is usually ugly, ugly, noisy Myspace.

The law-firm accepted the networking advantages of Facebook in their climbdown. While I fear slightly for a world where professional networking involves that much disclosure of your private life, it doesn't surprise me so much with lawyers. I was going to use the description 'coke-addled vandals' but this isn't a convenient time to be sued, so we'll move on.

Happy workers are those who can meet their friends, spend a little time laughing at a joke made by someone they like. Who can shriek, Wooster-like, at seeing old chums, all as they alt-tab back to their spreadsheets and databases. Happy workers are productive workers and far less likely to take a sick-day if they know they will see their friends at work. Only true addicts would really take whole days off or completely abuse their Facebook privileges, because it is quick, pleasing gratification that we crave, not more overload. It is our safe space where we can catch a glimpse of our friends' worlds, where we can share our good and bad news, emotions and opinions. Much like the pub, but cheaper, quieter and on tap all day and wherever we happen to be. Lovely.

But it isn't real life, so in case you're in the vicinity, here's another blatant plug for a real life gathering place (with its own Facebook event page, natch*):
Come to the Burslem Festival on June 23!

* Ooh. Memories of Just 17 just came flooding back.

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