By Cory Doctorow
(Originally published as “How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers will Kill Facebook,” in InformationWeek, November 26, 2007)
Facebook’s “platform” strategy has sparked much online debate and controversy. No one wants to see a return to the miserable days of walled gardens, when you couldn’t send a message to an AOL subscriber unless you, too, were a subscriber, and when the only services that made it were the ones that AOL management approved. Those of us on the “real” Internet regarded AOL with a species of superstitious dread, a hive of clueless noobs waiting to swamp our beloved Usenet with dumb flamewars (we fiercely guarded our erudite flamewars as being of a palpably superior grade).
Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: “So-and-so has sent you a message.” Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn’t telling—you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving, and searching. Emails from Facebook aren’t helpful messages—they’re eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote “Hi again!” on your “wall.” Like other “social” apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, “I know something, I know something, I know something—won’t tell you what it is!”
If there was any doubt about Facebook’s lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers to use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you’re the kind of person who likes the sound of a “benevolent dictatorship,” this clearly isn’t one.
Many of my colleagues wonder if Facebook can be redeemed by opening up the platform, letting anyone write any app for the service, easily exporting and importing their data, and so on (this is the kind of thing Google is doing with its OpenSocial Alliance). Perhaps if Facebook takes on some of the characteristics that made the Web work—openness, decentralization, standardization—it will become like the Web itself, but with the added pixie dust of “social,” the indefinable characteristic that makes Facebook into pure crack for a significant proportion of Internet users.
The debate about redeeming Facebook starts from the assumption that Facebook is snowballing toward critical mass, the point at which it begins to define “the Internet” for a large slice of the world’s netizens, growing steadily every day. But I think that this is far from a sure thing. Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe’s Law: “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system.” This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc.).
But Metcalfe’s law presumes that creating more communications pathways increases the value of the system, and that’s not always true (see Brook’s Law: “Adding manpower to a late softer project makes it later”).
Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I’m inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook’s-law parallel: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” Perhaps we can call this “boyd’s Law” [NOTE TO EDITOR: “boyd” is always lower-case] for danah [TO EDITOR: “danah” too!] boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.
Here’s one of boyd’s examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn’t like her boss doesn’t really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it’s perfectly valid to demand to be “friended” in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend’s buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.
In the real world, we don’t articulate our social networks. Imagine how creepy it would be to wander into a co-worker’s cubicle and discover the wall covered with tiny photos of everyone in the office, ranked by “friend” and “foe,” with the top eight friends elevated to a small shrine decorated with Post-It roses and hearts. And yet, there’s an undeniable attraction to corralling all your friends and friendly acquaintances, charting them and their relationship to you. Maybe it’s evolutionary, some quirk of the neocortex dating from our evolution into social animals who gained advantage by dividing up the work of survival, but acquired the tricky job of watching all the other monkeys so as to be sure that everyone was pulling their weight and not, e.g., napping in the treetops instead of watching for predators, emerging only to eat the fruit the rest of us have foraged.
Keeping track of our social relationships is a serious piece of work that runs a heavy cognitive load. It’s natural to seek out some neural prosthesis for assistance in this chore. My fiancee once proposed a “social scheduling” application that would watch your phone and email and IM to figure out who your pals were and give you a little alert if too much time passed without your reaching out to say hello and keep the coals of your relationship aglow. By the time you’ve reached your forties, chances are you’re out-of-touch with more friends than you’re in-touch with, old summer-camp chums, high-school mates, ex-spouses and their families, former coworkers, college roomies, dot-com veterans…. Getting all those people back into your life is a full-time job and then some.
You’d think that Facebook would be the perfect tool for handling all this. It’s not. For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-coworker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.
It’s not just Facebook and it’s not just me. Every “social networking service” has had this problem and every user I’ve spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that’s why these services are so volatile: why we’re so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace’s loving arms, from MySpace to Facebook. It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list—but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites (of course, chances are at least one of those invites will go to someone who’ll groan and wonder why we’re dumb enough to think that we’re pals).
That’s why I don’t worry about Facebook taking over the Net. As more users flock to it, the chances that the person who precipitates your exodus will find you increases. Once that happens, poof, away you go—and Facebook joins SixDegrees, Friendster, and their pals on the scrapheap of net.history.