Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sniff. I feel so left out. Everyone has a strong opinion about Facebook's decision to add that news feed feature. The Forbes article was an AP story on the subject, which was front-page news in the Burlington Free Press. It's even being covered by an Addy Indy reporter, which is pretty unusual for national news. And I... well, don't care.

It doesn't enable stalkers, not in any meaningful sense of the word. It doesn't provide any information that can't be found other ways. And it doesn't solicit any new information either — not only is the compendious facebook database not being shared, it's not even growing (except for usual newcomers). Not that it's a boon to humanity either, of course; it makes keeping in touch with friends easier, but only slightly easier than facebook itself. You know the worst thing it does? It slightly elevates the risk of that "don't post drunk party pictures of yourself online" phenomenon we get warned about in half of all advice columns I see. That's it.

But 600,000 — repeat that number, we're talking about the equivalent of a petition for change to a voluntary service exclusive to a subset of America — joined a group protesting it in less than a week.

I'm not surprised at the inaccuracies in that AP article*, but the least I can do is try to correct it.
The backlash is over Facebook's decision this week to deliver automated, customized alerts known as News Feeds about a user's closest friends, classmates and colleagues.

Literally true, but misleading. The big words — "automated, customized alerts"! — make this sound like a CNN special report, when the news crawl at the bottom of the TV screen would be a much better analogy. The News Feed is the first thing you see when you log on, but speaking for myself at least, I'd normally be on that page for the five seconds between logging in and clicking on the link to wherever I'm going.
Users who log on might instantly find out that someone they know has joined a new social group, posted more photos or begun dating their best friend.

Again, literally true, but lacking context. Everything in that sentence after "find out" is old news. Worth mentioning in some form for people new to Facebook, but should have been treated as background. The only piece of news there is "instantly"... which is a change from "within minutes". The horrors!
"It's making it so much easier for people who want to do stalking to stalk," said Facebook user Igor Hiller, 17, a freshman at University of California, Santa Barbara. "Facebook users really think Facebook is becoming the Big Brother of the Internet recording every single move."

Stupidity by critics doesn't prove the opposite case, but it sure as hell doesn't help. "Big Brother"? The KGB was Big Brother. Echelon and TIA were like Big Brother. Domestic warrantless spying programs are sort of like Big Brother in some ways. Anyone who says that a mere change-tracking new feature of a voluntary, free service is like Big Brother must have slept through his freshman English seminar and not taken history at all.

So people care about this. Spurred by an honest-to-God protest outside their office, Facebook has already scaled back the News Feed. But why do people care so much? Maybe because they lack perspective, like Mr. Hiller. Say what you will about geeks like me, but no one protested outside Blizzard's office when they announced a dumb new profession like "Jewelcrafting" in the World of Warcraft. Maybe they don't really care in the first place. "The Largest Facebook Group Ever" has united 860,672 people as of 3:15 p.m., for no cause at all, so it can't have been that hard to get the protest group — to put it in a familiar metaphor, maybe the opposition is a mile wide and an inch deep.

My personal theory, though, is that the News Feed reminds people that using Facebook in the way and to the degree that many people do is, though not actually antisocial, a big deviation from normal social habits. A reminder they don't like. In the entirely unscientific sample of the News Feed I've seen, the people supporting it are (mostly) the ones who are geeks and proud of it, so to speak, and those who aren't, don't. Am I correct? Is it my own circle of friends? My misanthropic filters? Who knows, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

* Hey, reporting isn't an easy job, and it looks like most are either consequences of the medium or honest mistakes. I do wonder about this, though:
"Anytime you're confronted with new information about yourself in a public place, it's surprising," said Andrea Forte, 32, a Facebook user and Georgia Tech doctoral candidate who studies online communities. "My initial reaction was mild dismay."

And that's the end of the quote. Sooo... what was her reaction once she had a chance to think about it? The writer doesn't say. Wouldn't that be a whole lot more relevant than her gut reaction?

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Thanks for the confidence that I might have had something more meaningful to say. :-) This is how it goes, though, in an interview. You just don't know what soundbyte they'll end up using and it's up to the reporter to choose what's relevant for the story.