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[Social-discuss] Why is Facebook Irresistible?
[Social-discuss] Why is Facebook Irresistible?
Fri, 2 Apr 2010 22:06:37 -0400
Greetings list. I've been looking for you for a month or so and now
I've found you. I was prompted to look by Eben Moglen's talk at ISOC:
While I am by no means interested in web programming (my domain lies
between DSP and HCI), I am interested in social organization generally
and lately, inspired in part by GNU Foundation ethics, I've decided to
investigate the possibility of contributing to the effort to establish
a rich ecology of _free_ online social organizational tools in
whatever limited way I can.
I've had a short conversation in IRC and taken a look through the
mailing list archive. I'm excited by what I've seen. If the best ideas
from the list are taken and developed well, I think we can establish
fertile ground for diverse applications not yet imagined and set a
great example for future paradigms.
I would like to voice a few concerns I have that I have not come
across in the list archive. Please fork new threads if you see fit.
(1) I think it is good to start by asking the question: What makes
I've been using Facebook since I was a high school student in 2005. At
the time, I was elated to switch to the new platform for one main
reason: a unified, well designed GUI that communicated a feeling of
'seriousness'. MySpace had become a horrendous mess as each user was
allowed to 'express' him/herself through deplorable homemade designs.
Worse, the design was terrible from the start. I observed found that
many of my friends felt the same way. Facebook was a clean, exclusive,
and 'serious-looking' solution to the MySpace mess. (This doesn't get
at why I was interested in those sites in the first place. For me,
ironically, social networking sites were a place for me to exhibit a
carefully constructed representation of myself. I found it easier to
express myself within the limited parameters of Facebook than the much
less limited parameters of MySpace.)
This poses an interesting contradiction. I have come across many
statements on the list to the effect of "the ability to express
oneself fully should not be compromised in any way". In 8 years of
being on the net, I've found that the best services have been those
that impose heavy restrictions on self expression*. Why? Because
design decisions are, for the most part, better left to good
designers. GUI design is difficult and it seems to be done best by
many talented designers working for money (with a few exceptions).
[This is why I don't use any open source applications with GUI's.
(Max/MSP > PureData. Apple Pages > Open Office etc. Safari > Firefox.
OSX > Linux. Gmail > Squirrel Mail.)†] One way around this problem is
to let the user impose his/her own customizations on everything
(skins) / let the user ignore other people's customizations.
* The very notion of unlimited self-expression is problematic from the
start. As every artist knows, imposed limitations are essential to
(2) Why is Facebook irresistible to me now?
After watching Moglen's talk, I decided to, along with some friends,
experiment with radically scaling down my usage of Facebook,
attempting to replace as many of the services as possible with 'free'
(a) Messages were easily replaced by email (ironically, GMail!)
(b) I found that 'status updates' were simply a distraction from what
I consider more "wholesome" forms of communication, so I blocked
everybody from my News Feed and made my Wall inaccessible. Others may
disagree. This can be replaced by Identi.ca, SMOB or whatever.
(c) Photo sharing seems to me to be a narcissistic activity. The way
Facebook implements it, I think, tarnishes some of the 'specialness'
of the photographs and stifles creativity. Another controversial
opinion. I removed all of my content and replaced the service with
Flickr, a platform that I find _nurtures_ creativity, for the time
being (not so much better).
(d) Groups were replaced by mailing lists (ironically, my tool of
choice is Google Groups due to its superior interface and ease of
(e) Notes were replaced by blogs
(f) Everything else is a superfluous distraction
After replacing all of these features, I find myself unable to leave
Facebook completely. Why can't I leave despite having replaced all of
the features that GNU Social will purportedly replace? What about
Facebook is essential for me?
(a) An underestimated feature of Facebook is the 'Friends in Common'
feature. It is very useful to track down somebody's profile and
discover that you share a common friend. In fact I found my current
roommate because of this feature.
(b) It is very useful as a directory, or no-maintenance address book.
If I need to track somebody down, this is the best way. 'All your
friends are there'.
(c) Lastly, _the most important feature of Facebook that has no
alternative_(!), is Facebook Events. I live in a medium-sized city and
being disconnected from Events means being disconnected from events
altogether. Many people send email invitations, but most don't. Some
events even have a no-apology 'if you don't have Facebook, too bad'
I am biased because I am a student in a city, but for me the priority
for a Facebook alternative is finding a viable replacement for
To summarize what I've written so far:
- A unified, well designed graphical interface is not to be
underestimated (To put it more strongly, I will not be using any
service that does not have a good interface that protects me from
other people's customizations).
- Most of Facebook's features are in my opinion superfluous and easily
replaced. The features that give rise to rich social interactions and
have no viable alternative are the ones that need addressing. Events
and 'Friends in Common' are the most important to me.
(3) Building on point (1), I would like to say something about adoption.
My grandparents use Facebook. If GNU Social is seeking widespread
adoption, it either needs to be or give rise to tools that the
computer-illterate can use. But perhaps that is not the point. Eben
Moglen has called our current interface design paradigm "point and
grunt". Perhaps we should design systems assuming a high level of
computer literacy just as the best writers (but not the most popular
writers!) assume a high level of literacy.
One proposed model is that in which everybody caries a personal server
with them on which their node is hosted. I love this idea, but my
grandparents don't even know what a server is. The cloud model is
popular for a reason. It's easy as hell.
Most of the people I know think of 'us' as the 'computer elite'. Is
GNU social for the computer elite or is it for the incompetent masses?
As per point (2), I think that GNU Social needs to, at a minimum,
provide a Facebook Events replacement designed for mass adoption. Some
of the other features, I'm not so sure.
(4) But what's the point?
The FOSS community has undoubtedly created many wonderful, useful
tools over the past thirty years or so. But I am severely critical of
the current pattern I see in the design of general, multi-purpose GUI
tools (including web tools): innovation is negligible and any tool is
a poor copy of tools that came before. † I listed some of these tools
If GNU social aims at being a general social network replacement, like
Elgg, it will almost certainly fail.
Let's take the opportunity to break the pattern. Let's start with
first principles, desires, and imagine something that goes beyond the
status quo. What is the ultimate purpose of social networks? According
to Moglen, Facebook is about getting people in bed together. Is GNU
Social about getting people laid? I would argue that if it isn't, it
will never be widely adopted. But then again, is wide adoption the
Is freedom the point? What would that mean?
It's easy to say "Facebook works, Twitter works, let's copy the model
and make it free". I say let others do that work. I do not mean to be
supercilious. I don't doubt that this thought has occurred to all of
you, but I think it bears repeating.
What is the future of mediated communication that we want to see
beyond little tidbits of instant gratification?
I'm excited to contribute to the extent that I can to these early discussions.
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