Monday, December 20, 2010

Can Facebook meet the future? Probably not.

I am on Facebook, which is to say I have put content on a web site designed for this purpose. It's a way, we are told, of sharing our lives with our 'friends'. 


Facebook is, sad to say, not quite as revolutionary as I would have expected but it is a means of communicating, if at a usually superficial level.

As of this date, I have 86 'friends'. Most are people I do know; the rest are people who've sent me friend requests. I believe in an open commons for expression, so I reject no one. I mean, after all, my life is not that interesting.

Mark Zuckerberg, the now 26-year-old who with a few friends created the social network we call Facebook, was recently named Time Magazine's 2010 Person of the Year. Being named Person of the Year used to have a certain je ne sais quoi but its cachet has withered — ironically because the Internet (the very medium upon which Zuckerberg's dream is built) has stolen Time readership and paid readers.

Facebook is an excellent example of what today's Internet does well. As a corollary, it also serves as an excellent example of the inherent weaknesses of the Internet, both as currently conceived and currently constructed. (Facebook proves itself and it proves 'not itself'.)

On the upside (the only side most people see), Facebook provides a platform for people to network digitally. 'Network' used to be a word reserved for politicians and businesspeople; they understood what it meant, while the rest of us looked dumbly from the sideline. The digital social network provided by Facebook changed that: networking is no longer the exclusive preserve of the suits. That's a good thing.

The architecture of a Facebook page — not the deep digital architecture of software rather the way pages, processes and applications are laid out on a browser page — is fairly straightforward. You can receive messages, send messages, upload photos and generally 'talk' about what's on your mind. Your friends see all the content you choose to share on your wall; in exchange, you get to see the stuff on their walls. You can also views a friend's online photo albums; read your friends' (usually) self-serving profiles; and e-mail one another without leaving Facebook. It's somewhat more detailed, as only Facebook aficionados know fully (I'm not one), but those are the broad sweeps.

There it is then. Facebook is a mostly user-friendly way to digitally share your stuff — not usually your deep thoughts, rather stuff you've assembled to paint a digital portrait of yourself: pictures of family pets, the children's graduation, nature and so forth. Truly harmless, sometimes endearing though rarely engaging. (Perhaps I'm only speaking from my personal Facebook experience — in that my 'stuff' is hardly earth-shaking nor does it reveal a whole lot about me: just snippets and shards. You'd really have to be a good cultural anthropologist to assemble me from my Facebook crumbs.)

So... Facebook is good but not great. Right.... What about those 500 million people who are signed on to Facebook? What are they? Digitized chopped liver?

There can be no doubt but that people find value in Facebook, just as they are increasingly gravitating to the less content-driven digital contrivances, such as Twitter and the others.

The question — one of many about the juggernaut that is social networking — is whether Facebook users REALLY like Facebook for all its cool, desperately-needed features or use it because it's become part of a new (perhaps still evolving) social imperative — the imperative to be hip and tech-savvy, for instance.

I expect I'm one of, oh let's say, 100 million Facebookies who rarely use the site for the services it was designed to provide. I open my page once a day not to add content but to provide a link to my friends to this blog. Occasionally, I'll upload pictures, as I did today. I uploaded the pictures to show my friends my real kitchen wall, which is a 'wall' in the very Facebookie sense of the term. My kitchen wall was not very advanced, but it was truly powered by people, i.e. real friends. (See The Wall on my Facebook wall. Search Jim Mosher on See my blog profile for more information. Yes, you can be my friend; just mention this blog.)

The greatest weakness of Facebook is that it is simply a sculpted assemblage of software that provides low-tech options to interact with others (friends, in this case). No doubt it was brilliant to recognize the appeal of this type of highly-crafted digital space but it ain't rocket science.

Rocket science will have to be employed to build the medium that will supplant the Internet. The question for Zuckerberg is whether he and his engineers, designers and programmers will be able to anticipate that new medium. What will it look like? How will it behave? Who will own it?

The new medium will probably share some of the characteristics we associate with the Internet of the present moment. Mostly, though, it will represent a radical shift away from the concepts that underpin today's Internet. While the underpinning of the Internet was laid by open-minded university types who lobbied for free-nets as a truly free and open commons, the now-Internet is anything but free. Any new medium that replaces or radically changes the now-Internet will likely incorporate a different moral culture.

One can also expect that the Internet will not disappear overnight; it may very well be that the Internet in a new form may be harnessed to capture some of the elements of the new medium. In the latter case, this abstract new medium will be in its nascent, embryonic form — waiting for the full radicalization that will qualify it as a true, globally-extensive paradigm shifter.

There's no doubt people who rely on the Internet to make their millions are examining all the implications of the looming emergence of a new medium. They may want to get themselves hurriedly to the nearest art gallery. As Marshall McLuhan noted in the 1960s, the smithy of new media is found in art. Artists anticipate the movement of culture and technology long before it arrives precisely because they are not bound by preconceptions. Unbiased by greed, artists see patterns shift. Artists may not 'see' their work in this way but, as McLuhan shows in a variety of his books, art anticipates change.

Change is coming. It's always coming.

The good news, if bad news for Internet proponents and acolytes, is that the vaunted new medium will prove mercurial to those now immersed in matrimony with the present medium we call the Internet. They will not see the new medium even if it sat beside them or cried to them in their sleep. The Internet has blinded everyone wedded to it.

No, the true innovators aren't even on the Internet right now or if they are it's occasional and purposeful time spent. But count on one thing: The true innovators will see the new medium long before it arrives — precisely because the people outside of today's bejewelled corridors of digital power have nothing to lose.

NOTE: This blog follows up on an earlier one, The biggest intellectual hoax.

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