The State of the Social Network

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Facebook has changed a great deal since it came into being just over eight years ago, and it’s development has been consistently contested over this time. After every major update to the social network, groups and petitions have sprung into existence, bemoaning the new interfaces and means of communication, regardless of whether they ended up being for the better or worse. It seems the community hate change, which makes it difficult to rely on them to evaluate Facebook at any one point in time.

In spite of this I’ve been feeling an increasing sense of unease over what Facebook is slowley becoming. I’m not going to talk about Timeline in this article since I think it works quite well as a long term archiver in spite of it’s frankly stupid two-column interface, rather I want to talk about the way Facebook is now advertising.

There was a time, and please correct me if I’m wrong in saying this, when Facebook content and ads were kept completely seperate. Facebook has always had to make money, and if it wanted to remain a free service then a certain amount of advertising was necessary. Ads were thus ever-present, but relegated to a sidebar, seperated from the rest of the page by a good inch or so of white space. I liked this. It kept things simple, and above all it never got in the way of anything else.

This changed briefly (and again this is all from memory, so apologies for any errors) with the rise of Facebook games, when any app a ‘friend’ was using would be able to spit updates into your notification feed, regardless of whether you yourself had installed the app. This created a shitty user-experience and so Facebook removed the ability for applications to do this.

Now however things seem to have changed. I enjoyed the news reader apps at first. Seeing what Facebook friends were reading and then being able to check them out for myself was an enjoyable way to pass time. Some disliked the way your read articles were put on your newsfeed without your permission, but I was ambivalent. I rarely, if ever, choose to ‘Share’ an article on Facebook mostly thanks to the fact I can’t be bothered, and so if an app wants to do it on my behalf I’ve not got a problem with it doing so.

These apps seem to have disappeared from my feed now, replaced with often-moronic ‘trending articles’. These are articles which I’m fairly certain none of my friends are usually reading, with provocative titles like, “OMG You HAVE to see what got this girl KICKED out of SCHOOL.” It’s the equivalent of attempting to trick you into believing there’s a possibility of porn when obviously nothing of the sort will ever be found on such a mom-friendly website (maybe try Google). There’s still some good stuff floating around from national papers, but it increasingly seems to be in the minority.

My problem with these articles is less to do with their complete lack of interesting content, and more about why they’re appearing on my newsfeed at all. The reasoning for them popping up is supposidly that they’re ‘trending’ which essentially translates to ‘everyone’s reading them’. I don’t want to read something just because it’s popular though, otherwise I’d have bought Fifty Shades of Gray by now. I browse the internet because I have complete control over what I view. If I wanted otherwise I’d go and watch TV.

I (perhaps unrealistically) want a Facebook filled with things I actually want to see. I want to be able to ‘friend’ people when I want to hear from them, ‘unfriend’ them when I want to be shot of them, and ‘unsubscribe’ when I don’t want to hurt their feelings. If people want to share news stories I’m all in, but if someone starts unironically linking to the Daily Mail I want to have the ability to tune them out.

Oh a man can dream...

Instead what Facebook is becoming is a means for companies and news sites to pay to get their content seen by its users, whether or not they’ve opted to see this promotional stuff. It’s making me feel more and more like less of a user, and more of a consumer, and that’s not a pleasant feeling at all.

Of course I understand that Facebook needs to make money, and of course this money has to come from advertising if the service is to remain free, but the maddenning thing is that I’d be totally willing to pay for an ad-free Facebook. Giving up Facebook is a difficult option that isn’t for everyone, but the fact that it’s free means that no one really has any option save grinning and bearing it.

So I’m not going to stop using Facebook anytime soon, but it stopped being fun to use a while ago. Facebook is increasingly feeling like a website filled with companies rather than users, and when it inevitably runs its course I’ll be the first to jump ship without complaint.

Well, that was a bit of a rant wasn’t it?

Jon X. Porter

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