Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It's About more than Advertising

Cory Doctorow has that admirable blend of logic and rhetoric that we used to take for granted in the writings of old-school columnists but is regarded today by all too many readers and publishers as pathetically old-fashioned. Thus, if for no other reason than a need to revive the quality reading habits that such old-school columnists could cultivate, the column he wrote yesterday for InformationWeek deserves attention. In many ways it is a follow-up to Friday's report by Anick Jesdanun and Rachel Metz of the Associated Press about Facebook's latest marketing strategy; but this is just the tip of Doctorow's iceberg. The entire iceberg involves a meticulous deconstruction of not only Facebook but also the broader concept of computer-based social networks, which builds up to the climactic conclusion that, when all the glitz is stripped away, these technologies are fundamentally antisocial.

From a rhetorical point of view, Doctorow has engaged one of the more popular genres among today's readers, the rant. Here is an example of the persiflage he engages to get the reader's attention:

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"

However, once he has that attention, he then homes in on his true goal, which is to question whether or not any of this social networking technologies have any serious or lasting value:

The debate about redeeming Facebook starts from the assumption that Facebook is snowballing toward critical mass, the point at which it begins to define "the Internet" for a large slice of the world's netizens, growing steadily every day. But I think that this is far from a sure thing. Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).

But Metcalfe's law presumes that creating more communications pathways increases the value of the system, and that's not always true (see Brook's Law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later").

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.

He then offers an illustration:

Here's one of boyd's examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn't like her boss doesn't really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it's perfectly valid to demand to be "friended" in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend's buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.

There is nothing new about such horror stories. We have heard more than enough of them, if not experienced any of them directly. The point of the illustration, however, is to demonstrate that the way in which we "network" in the real social world is a far cry from what technologies such as Facebook enable. Doctorow captures this nicely:

In the real world, we don't articulate our social networks.

Put more bluntly, a social network in the real world is not a database of links, no matter how much metadata you try to hang on to those links. Indeed, the ways in which we "link" in the real-world processes of socialization are far too fluid and context-dependent to ever be shoehorned into the simplistic technology of a database, no matter how large and complex the contents may be. For Doctorow this refutes his aforementioned proposition that Facebook will "define 'the Internet' for a large slice of the world's netizens;" but there can also be a more pessimistic reading, best explained by way of an analogy.

As an undergraduate I was fascinated by the question of whether or not a computer could compose music as well as a "real" composer. In one of my term papers, I came to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely that a computer would produce a composition that was up to the standards being taught and practiced in the middle of the twentieth century. However, I also suggested that the standards of a later age could well change, meaning that future audiences might derive more satisfaction from what a computer could compose than from any of the "outmoded" works of a Bach or a Beethoven. In a similar way Doctorow has not taken into account that socialization is what we perceive it to be. Thus, a future generation may actually "articulate" their social networks, even if we do not. From our point of view, such a generation would seem impoverished, if not pathological, perhaps along the lines of autistic symptoms. However, to that generation our point of view would be external and therefore of little significance. Thus, my pessimistic reading is that Facebook may well be inventing the future of socialization, whether we want it to or not!

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