The Failure of Facebook


So last week we found out that Mark Zuckerberg is finally doing it – Facebook floats, or soars, or takes off, or whatever verb of motion best describes its share price after the imminent IPO.
We’re going to hear a lot about how much money Zuckerberg is going to be worth, and how much Microsoft’s bet paid off, and how wealthy Bono is now, and so on. Analysis is going to be unavoidable and, to a large degree, unbearable – at heart we all know that Facebook is not only manipulative and frequently untrustworthy, it’s also a fundamental disappointment.
I first wrote about Facebook in a column for The Irish Times back in 2007, when the company was beginning its nascent journey into the fabric of our lives & warranted introductory, explanatory columns describing its potential.
But for all my initial enthusiasm, I quickly became pained by the pragmatic problems the site always posed – there’s the conceptually muddled distinctions between pages and profiles and walls and so on; there’s the bland visual design, boring blues and rigid grids and dull fonts; and there’s the hideous usability, or more often unusability.
Then there’s the convoluted privacy settings, so poorly structured that either Facebook’s engineers are intentionally obfuscating or they’re morons. Either way, it doesn’t inspire trust when you have to toggle more than 150 preferences spread across all sorts of settings menus, and you’re still left with the sneaking suspicion that Facebook managed to outwit you.
But what really marks Facebook as a failure is the betrayal of its initial promise – this was a service that allowed you to keep up with your friends, friends who might otherwise drift into the realm of strangers, and which encouraged new interactions and evolving networks of friendship. It was above all a low-friction way of keeping up with far-flung friends – it didn’t require the labour of emails or the checking of blogs. You could engage with the lives of your friends merely by looking at your news feed. The value it offered was immense, incalculable, revolutionary in some ways. The fragile bonds of friendship, so vulnerable to the vagaries of real life, suddenly had a new mechanism to sustain them. For the billions of us who are fond of our friendships, Facebook really should have been a wondrous invention.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out like that.
The traditional annual uproar over Facebook changes and privacy infringements, where the Facebook community would be up-in-arms and Facebook would roll back on some, but not all, of the over-reach, became such a tiresome rigmarole that it really was best to ignore it. But the bigger picture, the cumulative effect of those changes, was what mattered, and the bigger picture was a policy ratchet that fundamentally altered Facebook’s initial promise.
Rather than being about sharing content with a chosen circle of friends, it was attempting to coerce its users into essentially curating public blogs, viewable by the whole internet, and easily targeted by ads. At this stage, with its Open Graph, it’s attempting to track your entire online life, from the articles you read to the music you like to the videos you watch, and not only trying to sell that information but broadcast it. As the developer Nick Bradbury put it, this wrestling of privacy and control is far from frictionless; instead, by forcing us to consider whether what we’re about to read/listen to/watch will be broadcast on our profile and whether we want that broadcast, it introduces a new layer of friction, a pervasive cognitive cost as we weigh up each click.
Worst of all, however, is how Facebook is deeply insidious about all of this behaviour, dismissing valid concerns and cloaking its activities in impenetrable settings.
There are lots of services we use that we have developed a well-earned suspicion about – I’d wager most people don’t trust their banks too much, and might have a scepticism about their insurance companies, say. The banks will try to shaft you and the insurance companies will try to stiff you, but we grit our teeth and find the least worst option.
But it’s another thing entirely when we are forced to entrust our friendships, and the sustenance of those friendships, with such a company. Our online social graph, the most tangible link we can have with many people we consider friends, is no longer something joyous and comforting; instead Zuckerberg has turned it into something vaguely threatening, a potential trap that needs to be constantly negotiated, a latent liability that is forever just outside our control. It doesn’t matter how benign or harmless your Likes and Status Updates and Pokes are; the inability to trust Facebook, the warranted suspicion that its ethics are awry, means that our friendships and our profile becomes a source of anxiety.
And so something that should be one of the pinnacles of the internet age, a beacon of 21st-century technology, instead represents a particularly depressing sort of failure, no matter how many billions its IPO rakes in.

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