Thursday, December 30, 2010

Maybe it's not Facebook's fault

Like many people, I have mixed feelings about Facebook. When I say mixed, I mean mostly negative. The only good things on Facebook are all the people I like(™) there. Because of them, I spend a lot of time there. I'm happy to accept too, that there's some good things about the way it automatically makes links of cats and photos of my boat easy to share. It helps me keep connected with people in ways that don't require too much thought or physical movement, which is great when you're (1) far away from many of the people you've made friends with in your life and (2) lazy. Little warms my heart as much than designing a virtual cupcake for a friend on her birthday, or steaming in with a little fertiliser for my mum's enormous Farmville ranch.

Beyond that, I harbour lots of resentment.The way they tinker with stuff for no good reason. How you have to go through no end of dilemmas about friend requests from people you can't remember, didn't like much or who you don't particularly feel comfortable knowing in *that* way. The privacy stuff-oh-my-god-yes: you have to watch your privacy settings like a hawk, because Zuckerburg has just flicked the switch that allows your neighbour's cat to tell the local burglar that you are out. I dislike its blue borders and the sense it's got me, whether I like it or not.

Unlike Twitter, I can't choose the method I use to speak to my friends beyond web or mobile (both of which look pretty much the same), and I can't stop using it because many of my friends don't use anything else online. It's like having a flatmate who gets on your nerves but nevertheless you have to see every f-ing day and who insists on showing you their sunny holiday photos despite your clear, silent, disinterest. And who, while they're at it, rearranges the furniture while you're out.

What annoys many most of all about Facebook is the sense that it is becoming a separate internet of its own. A private island, locked away from the open web, with more users in the UK than any other site except

But in a sudden seasonal turn, I thought – what if we're being unfair on Facebook? It's not Facebook that's closed off Facebook. It's us. We, the collective we, have decided that if Twitter and Linkedin are public, Facebook is private. In theory (although I've never seen it work in practice), Facebook has the same capability for RSS feeds as anything else. People who don't change their privacy settings can have all their stuff broadcast as easily as if they'd tweeted it. Equally, of course, private tweeting is just as acceptable. There are no rules except those we create ourselves.

I don't intend to change the way I use Facebook. It's the place where I go to say things that are way too dull to unleash on the open web. I like checking in on what old friends are having for tea, or who had a baby this week. Although I'm too paranoid to put much up that is genuinely private, it's still got photos of things that I don't want to share with everyone by default. But, having made that choice myself, it's not very fair to pin the blame on Facebook for holding closed data about me. The other choice would be to open it up completely. I could connect with everyone I've ever known for any length of time in a mission to create a complete, open social web of my life. But I don't really feel like doing that. If I do anything to reconcile my use of Facebook with the desire for a complete, open web, it'll just be to nudge some of my friends who are posting up Facebook content that really deserves a wider audience into blogging, or tweeting.

One of the things I have hazy memories of from history study was the concept of private and public spheres. This was a dividing line between men and women that, we learned, emerged in the Victorian era. Women spent most of the twentieth century trying to hop over the fence back into the public sphere. As a(n) historian, I now ask, how do we make these collective decisions? Looking back, will we find that Twitter = Public sphere & Facebook = Private sphere was a permanent decision, or will it shift once again?

Only time will tell. But in the meantime, I open up it up for the last few hours of your holiday entertainment – are we being unfair on Facebook? Discuss.