February 8, 2013

Is Facebook in trouble now? The word “friend” has no meaning anymore!

Here’s some bad news for Facebook and good news for the human race.
Here’s some bad news for Facebook and good news for the human race. According to a Pew report, more than half of American users say that they’ve taken a “vacation” from the social platform of several weeks or more, and 27 per cent plan to reduce their visits in 2013. They’re not quitting because of the various data/privacy scandals but because they've fallen out of love. Twenty one percent said they were too busy to stay, 10 per cent that they’ve lost interest, 10 per cent because the content is a “waste of time”, 9 per cent disliked all the drama/negative attitude and 7 per cent “just got bored.” Fears about privacy only informed 4 per cent of drop outs.

So the real reason why Facebook is in trouble is that millions of people are waking up to how rubbish it is. Like the vast majority of you, I joined Facebook under social pressure. A few years ago, all my friends suddenly disappeared from my life. They both said that they'd moved their friendships online and no longer had time to waste doing real world stuff like getting high and watching Jerry Springer. Reluctantly, I set up a profile, signed my name in the Devil's book and joined the Facebook set. These were just some of the horrors I discovered.

1. The word “friend” has no meaning anymore. People I don’t know, or have never wanted to know, are now my “friends”. Of course, Facebook has helped me to meet countless strangers who I’ve grown to love, especially all those folks who saw that I shared an interest in Captain Scarlet or some such nonsense and thought they’d make a connection. But what I can’t stand is the people who I once knew many years ago and never liked reaching out to me uninvited. I’m thinking mostly of the school psychopath who set fire to my shirt and who suddenly appeared on my computer ten years later asking to be my “friend”. And, because I’m so damn cheap, I clicked “request accepted.” Thanks to Facebook, Dan “Flamethrower” Barnes is back in my life.* Although, also thanks to Facebook, I also now know that he’s put on a lot of weight and is divorced. So it's swings and roundabouts.

2. Few people have anything of any interest to say on Facebook. Yes, I have one or two erudite friends who post links to their latest academic paper on bee flight. But the vast bulk of Facebook chat is carried out between two very bored minds trying to kill time before their next cigarette break. Common themes include how cute cats are, would you 'do' Gordon Brown, whatever happened to global warming and why Facebook is rubbish. The few times that a political conversation happens it’s like being witness to a pub argument performed sober: “Mitt Romney is a racist.” “Why do you hate freedom?” Why do you hate black people?” and so on. Nothing makes you despair for the intelligence of your friends than watching them lazily type clichés with one hand while they apply nail varnish with the other.

3. Facebook can become addictive in a creepy way. It’s a stalker’s charter. Sometimes I’ll look up old lovers to see if they’ve let themselves go, other times I’ll skim through the family photos of a complete stranger and imagine myself going on holiday with them. But it’s equally bizarre to see my own life pop up on other people’s timelines. Thanks to Facebook, photos of me that I would never want shown appear untagged for the attention of millions. There seem to be about 5,000 of me drunk at a University of Edinburgh dinner wearing a mysterious blue sash with the words “First Prize” emblazoned across it. I have no memory of the photo being taken or of visiting Edinburgh, yet here it is…

But the basic problem with Facebook is that it’s never got the balance between public and private right. It acts like it’s a harmless, private space where you can chat with friends as and when you want. But it’s actually created all sorts of weird new social pressures. “Why didn’t you like grandma’s photos?” “Why didn’t you send me birthday wishes?” (because I don’t know who you are and your profile picture is Stalin), “Is the boss online?”, “Can everyone else see what I’m looking at?” Unless you’re a computer scientist it’s almost impossible to master all the options that help protect your privacy. The most subtly damning is the aggregating tool that tells your friends what news stories you’ve been reading. Many months passed before I discovered that everyone knew I was obsessively compiling data on premature greying.

So can we all agree to quit Facebook and join Twitter? It’s faster, funnier and definitively public. And in an age of global illiteracy, it makes perfect sense that communication be limited to 140 characters. All the great art of the future will be written that way – haiku in text speak. Shorter and sweeter.

*I've changed his name because I'm still frightened of him.

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