Friday, December 11, 2009

The impossibility of popularity

So, um. Regular posting seems not to be my thing. Still, there's nothing like delayed gratification.

In case you hadn't noticed, Facebook are messing with privacy settings again. It seems the tendency of social networks is to start with a brief free for all, when everything and everyone's information is up for grabs, then as time goes on, people voluntarily find their comfort level and walls go up. This isn't, or shouldn't be news. Anthropology and pop sociology books (see Desmond Morris & Malcolm Gladwell) all talk about the natural human tendency to separate into groups based on common purposes (and the maximum number of people we can adequately process on a day-to-day level). I don't know how many friends I have on Facebook - more than 100, I think - but the number in no way correlates to the amount of people I interact with in real life during a given month. I don't even communicate with a third of these people online either, nor am I likely to.

You aren't either. We join these networks for two reasons: 1. Everyone else is doing it and we have to find dinner party conversation somewhere; 2. We want to know exactly what all those people we met in the past look like and what they're doing now. It's great, like going to a class reunion in disguise. You can sate your stalkerish nostalgia muscle without actually having a forced conversation about stuff you wanted to put behind you years ago, or navigate the tricky waters of 'what are you up to these days?'.

But that only takes you so far. You found out how successful or not your exes, childhood friends and schoolyard enemies are, how many children have turned up, who has expanded horizontally and the many curious ways male pattern baldness occurs. Then you're done. Maybe you reconnect with some people, but mostly your reward is endless status updates, from people you don't actually know and an unending stream of Farmville invitations. So you start to filter your news feed. I cannot stress how fabulous this feature is.

I'm digressing. The point is, as we spend more time on these networks we inevitably progressively close off access to others and ourselves. Most of the time we don't even notice. I've only discovered (as I type) that a number of people I friended around the time I joined Facebook have defriended me. I'm crushed, as you can imagine. I'm wondering, as an experiment, how long would it take most of my friends' list to notice if I did the same. With a few exceptions, I doubt there would be a very large amount. Outside our immediate circle, your 300 friends are meaningless. You don't see them. You couldn't even list all their names off the top of your head. Some you haven't seen for years and are unlikely ever to clap eyes on again.

But this doesn't help Facebook. They need the network to remain open, for lots of reasons. Here are a few:

1. Facebook has already been the top dog for around 3 years. In social network terms, this is like the entire Cretaceous period. MySpace is already a fossil being dug up by the IT equivalent of Mary Anning. They need to keep at least the illusion of openness to compete with Twitter and whatever is coming after.

2. Advertisers like large, unsplintered audiences. It reminds them of the heady days of two-channel TV and 'event television'. Keeping consumer information available is good for their business, and hence for Facebook.

3. Voyeurism. Sooner or later, people will start going through their privacy settings and tighten everything up, but until then it's frontier country.

So, hmmm. I don't know. I've been flirting with leaving the site for a while now - it's a massive timesink and I'm pretty sure I can contact everyone I'm actually friends with, but like every other insecure freelancer, I'm afraid to leave the party first. Just as long as I'm not the last.

Very quickly - talking about Facebook and Twitter reminds me of a personal bugbear. If I want to talk to someone or seek their advice, I will contact them personally and do so, in much the same way as if I want to go for a pint with my friend I won't inscribe it on a sandwich board and walk up and down Grafton Street until he sees it. Equally I don't react well to seeing it done by others. People can do what they like, but I fail to see how it is in any way productive. This thought is brought to you by the ever perceptive Merlin Mann, who, apart from having a terrific name (I wanted to call one of my boys Merlin, but was dissuaded. It would have been so cool. Oh well) has a knack for explaining this sort of thing very well. Go follow him.

Facebook and Twitter are great fun. I spent a gloriously unproductive hour yesterday looking at the profile pictures of people I went to school with twenty-plus years ago (because I calculated they would not realise their locked profiles were no longer so. Elementary, my dear Watson). But thumbnail pics and pithy status updates aren't people. Real friends are the ones you eat food with, go for pints with, argue about music, lend books to and who are your lifetime audience as you are theirs (if you're very lucky, and everyone should have a measure of that luck).

Right. Better go and do some paying work now.

Beer + blogs + comment boxes = overexcited me

I need to address my late-night commenting problem. It is a matter of some urgency. None of this would happen if I had a Jeeves around to keep an eye on me.

Well-known internet comic via xkcd

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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