The ironic thing about Facebook is that, for a social media platform, it’s not really very much about social communication. It’s really more of a short-form news/blog aggregator. It’s still just another kind of bulletin board.
“I noticed this trend some years ago, to my own despair. I first noticed it in the way, month by month, the quality of many mailing list discussions deteriorated and then fell mostly silent. I noticed it in how I encountered increasingly vitriolic responses to posts on any topic that exceeded more than a single paragraph. The act of reading was becoming an ever-worsening imposition, making coherent on-line discussion increasingly difficult. In space advocacy forums, people would complain about how no one ever presented any ‘plans’ for doing anything then, when those plans were posted, those same people would complain about being expected to read them–like you were supposed to reduce every highly technical discussion to a bullet list.
Increasingly, mailing list based groups moved to Facebook pages on the premise that this was now where all the people were, which was true, but when my own forums went there I cautioned that the mode of use compelled by the Facebook interface was tailored to mobile devices and didn’t allow for any form of coherent discussion. You could see this in how crude its text editing was, and how quickly you hit the wall in character count. It was a ‘browsing’ platform–a form originating in bulletin board and news aggregator sites–prone to what I call ‘browser’s syndrome’; a cyclic scanning of ‘news’ in small chunks that creates a sort of hypnotic state which is disrupted by text that compels active conscious thought. It’s a way of coping with an overwhelming volume of information by applying a kind of compartmentalization and rhythm to its assimilation. In effect, when people seemed to act compulsively angrily at any long post it was because they were responding to it the way a commuter does when encountering a traffic jam. It breaks the rhythm of the browsing routine. Disrupts the flow. Demands attention when people really want that steady thought-quelling rhythm of news-bytes, like the rocking of a cradle, or maybe the drum beat of the hortator… I worried that a lot of these groups would be killed by going to Facebook, their subject matter too sophisticated for such structure, and I was proved right. But what could you do? Facebook had all the eyeballs and it didn’t so much shape the trend as conform to it. Personal computing itself was shifting from big screens to small. The ergonomics of reading was being changed to suit.
Facebook’s appeal rests in the still intractable problem of the internet’s vast scale and ‘structurelessness’, which relates to the limitations of the search engine to function as a coherent internet front-end. Facebook sort of crudely solves today the problem the Semantic Web is intended to solve some time in the future–and which used to be characterized by past futurists in the idea of the ‘personalized electronic daily newspaper’. I used to describe UNIX as being like visiting Tokyo during a blackout–having to navigate a vast city by flashlight. This is pretty-much what the Internet has long been like; passive, invisible, waiting for you to make some effort to go in and explore it with some collection of tools like a spelunker. You can’t really do anything useful with, or get benefit from, the internet until you’ve established a kind of sub-net of your own into it that you can navigate, more-or-less, in a routine. This is what the features of web browsers were, crudely, about; creating default entry points into the net, giving you a memory of frequently used locations. News aggregators, like Reddit, emerged as a means to pool effort into making the internet more visible through a sort of centralized community window organized by topics, replacing the flashlight with a spotlight. As these became larger they became a kind of push-information front-end to the newest information on-line that you could brows like a newspaper. Facebook offers a kind of personalized push-info view into a certain portion of the internet–albeit rather crude. That personal electronic newspaper spit out of your combination toaster/coffeemaker/computer. You could argue it’s what the web browser itself was really supposed to evolve into but didn’t. Recently, analysts have discovered that, in many countries, large numbers of people can’t tell the difference between the internet and Facebook because they don’t really understand the relationship between the two. They will deny being ‘internet users’ while being avid Facebook users. They think they’re two completely different things; the internet a ‘computer thing’ and Facebook what you use on a smartphone. Facebook has become a kind of Windows OS over the Internet (often, people’s first interaction with it), with people no longer cognizant there’s still something like DOS underneath.
Facebook may command the biggest mainstream mass of eyeballs, but it’s a fundamentally inadequate communication medium and I think that will succumb to other media concepts in time. We’re in a phase now where real competitors haven’t yet been invented because developers of alternatives are still reacting to its scale and ‘corporateness’ rather than its form and structural and functional inadequacies as a communications medium. The form itself is not yet getting questioned. It’s who’s running it that people object to. The ironic thing about Facebook is that, for a social media platform, it’s not really very much about social communication. It’s really more of a short-form news/blog aggregator. It’s still just another kind of bulletin board.“