Saturday, 24 September 2011

Facebook Makes Me Like You

I’m just a big fan of a certain length of paragraph

So Facebook has done another thing. It’s made your history look pretty and let you share all the important and not so important things in your life more quickly, more easily, more accurately and more often. This is terrible news.

See, Facebook is the anti-social network. It concerns itself with the people you already know and the things the people you already know, know. You can’t make friends on Facebook. We’ve all got our privacy options cranked up so far, we’re not even allowed to look at our own profiles, just in case we discover the shocking truth about what we did last summer. 

On Twitter I meet new people all the time. I actively try to make new social connections with people who are interesting to me, and hopefully me to them. And it works. I’ve has three real life meetings in the last two weeks with people I’ve met on Twitter. This has never happened through Facebook.

These little fellows are Twitter
Nothing Facebook has added will make creating those new social connections any more likely. In fact the more data is there for people to see on my Facebook page, the less comfortable I am with letting new people see it. I don’t want to be stuck in my past, I want to reach for my future. You’re only as good as your last gig, right?


There are two more nefarious and subtle elements to the lack of new connections on Facebook. Firstly: sharing is boring. If I share music, by listening to music on Spotify, you see me listening to that music and you decide to also listen to that music. We sit there, both listening to that music. We were listening to different music. Now we’re listening to the same music.

One of the best things about the internet was how it let you be weird in private. It let you look at anything you wanted, anything at all, no matter how strange, unsavory, socially unacceptable or simply at odds with your carefully curated public image. The world had been a place of mass-production and mass consumption. There are four cars, which one do you want? There are twelve bands, which one do you want to listen to? Be normal, you have to be normal, we can only do normal. 

This man would never happen on Facebook

Suddenly internets! And we could do weird. We could make content that only a handful of people wanted to see. Demographics could diverge and home in, the logical conclusion being that you would see your own individualised things that were for you. A demographic of one. By making ‘social discovery’ so simple, we make homogenisation a force once again. Listen to what I’m listening to. Watch what I am watching, Read what I am reading. Don’t be different, be the same

More insidious still, the strange choices I do make are also publicised. If you know everything you listen to, watch or read is going to be shared, will you listen to things that don’t fit with your public image? Worse, what if you’re not sure if what you’re listening to, watching or reading is going to be shared or not? What when there’s a little voice at the back of your head reminding you that maybe all your friends will see that you’re being, maybe, not completely the person you claim to be?


The second, yet more nefarious and subtle element is the feeling you get that you can’t be sure if Facebook is watching you or not. And if Facebook is watching you, Facebook is totally a snitch. A grass. An informer, a tattle-tale, a loud-mouth.

There is a kind of theoretical prison design called a Panopticon. The idea behind it is that the cells are arranged in a circle around a central tower. The guards look out from the central tower and can see into any of the cells at any time. There aren’t enough guards to look into all the cells all of the time, but the prisoners never know whether or not they’re being observed. The idea is that because the prisoners might be being watched at any time, they behave as if they are being watched all the time.

Behold the Panopticon!

Facebook is a social Panopticon. Some of the time, it watches us and we can never be completely sure when. Sometimes, when it watches us, it tells our friends what it saw, and we can't really be sure of that, either. And slowly and subtly we’ll act as if we’re being watched all of the time, because sometimes we are being watched, but we’re never quite sure when.

Who wants to live together?

Facebook anchors us in the past. It encourages to discover things that others have already discovered. It encourages us to find what it is that makes us the same as our friends, not what makes us different, and it does so while sitting outside our house in an unmarked van. Maybe it’s looking at what we’re doing. Maybe it’s listening to what we’re saying. Maybe it’s going through our bins at night. Maybe it’s not, but better safe than sorry. What goes on internet, stays on internet, right?

This image will stay on the internet forever
If this is a good or a bad thing is pretty much moot. It is going to happen, so how do we deal with it? What does it mean? The forces of individuality and conformity have been fighting each other forever, and surely this battle will go on for as long as humans are shuffling around, spoiling things.

Facebook is playing for the conformity team. You can decide how you feel about that for yourselves.


  1. You have to wonder if Zuck and his pals even know what it means to create a "serendipitous" experience. Which, of course, is what they proclaim their new Open Graph model enables. To your point, if Facebook creates an environment in which we surround ourselves with people "like us," and enhances sharing within that environment, at some point we're all going to be listening to the same song.
    Twitter is notorious for creating little echo chambers like this, and yet it (again to your point) enables connections to be made a sphere or 2 outside of the typical Facebook friend circle. One cannot attain serendipity without a little effort on their part. You have to include some outliers, some randoms if you will, to your sphere of influence (holy buzzwords!) if you want to discover some new "songs."

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree. Look outside yourself and your friends and your industry and find genuinely new things. You'll come back a richer person for it.