Facebook is the currently-popular social networking website that boasts over 550 million users. It is the epitome of what “Web 2.0” is supposedly about — personalized, user-created social content that connects people to one another. And it does that pretty darned well, too. I’ve re-connected with old friends from high school — friends I hadn’t seen or talked to in over 20 years — and even my first girlfriend from middle school.
Are these connections “deep”? No, of course not. But they are very real and they exist. Before Facebook came along, these connections were non-existent. These people in my life had faded not only from my life, but from my memory as well.
Facebook changed all of that and brought them back into my life, no matter how fleeting or shallow our relationship now is.
After viewing The Social Network, the recent popular movie about the rise and rise of Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook social networking website, and reading You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier, The New York Review of Books reviewer Zadie Smith comes away with this insight — perhaps social networking sites as popularized today are not the end-all, be-all of our existence. Perhaps we should step away from technology, as it tries to force us into its paradigms of design.
If [Facebook] were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul. Lanier:
These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!
Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?
Facebook is something more than just what Mark Zuckerberg designed in his dorm room in 2003. It is what’s called an “extensible” computing platform — it allows others to build upon the basic foundation of Facebook. Tens of thousands of developers have done just that, creating over 550,000 Facebook applications — piece of software that run on top of Facebook.
I don’t think for a moment that someone believes Facebook represents their “life.” It is simply one tool in our modern day arsenal of tools to help us keep in touch with friends, pass some time being entertained, and write something interesting for others’ daily amusement or education.
Isn’t it a bit melodramatic to say we are “entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore” as Zadie Smith suggests? We’re not “interfac[ing] with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg,” we’re interfacing with the dozens or hundreds of personal relationships we’ve established throughout the years in our lives. We no more entrapped in the mind of Mark Zuckerberg as we are entrapped in the mind of Bill Gates when we write a novel on Microsoft Word, or entrapped in the mind of Steve Jobs when we play chess online through a Safari web browser, or listen to our favorite music on our iPods.
Of course designers are going to design things that appeal to them — that is the very definition and nature of design.
But people aren’t “trapped” into making decisions about what products they buy or what services they use — online or in real life. If a design is good, people vote with their pocketbooks or their time. Millions bought the iPod because the design was good to listen to music with. Millions signed onto Facebook and left Myspace in the dust because Facebook was a platform that allowed people to do more than just personalize their own page — it allowed them to do tons of other stuff they couldn’t do elsewhere.
In this way, perhaps we buy into whatever the designer is selling us, from a design standpoint. But it’s a willing, conscious choice, not one that’s blindly made.
Indeed, the personalization of Myspace pages may be one of the things that did it in. How disconcerting and confusing it is to visit a customized Myspace page and try to find the standard bits of information that is so readily found in the same place and with the same readibility as every other Facebook profile.
While indeed, I am not a “gadget,” I am also not a dumb sheep that can’t think or make informed decisions for myself. After witnessing the popularity of Apple’s iPod, Microsoft launched a music player — the Zune — that never caught on in the same way the iPod did. Google, as a search engine, replaced the popular search engines of its day (such as Alta Vista). If a better search engine comes along, it will one day replace Google.
The same is true of Facebook. It is a popular social networking website right now, but who knows if it’ll be around a decade from now.
I love technology and all that it enables. But I also treat and use it the way it was a designed — as a tool to enhance my everyday life. Just as I drive a car to cut down on the time it takes to make a journey of 100 miles, I interact with Facebook because it allows me to easily connect with old friends and new more easily than anything else today. For me, anyways, it’s really that simple.
How about you?
Read the full review: Generation Why? by Zadie Smith