Monday, December 27, 2010

Why I'm Leaving Facebook

I know it seems like an odd time to abandon Facebook, what with Mark Zuckerberg gazing from the cover of TIME Magazine. Actually, it was Lev Grossman's informative article in TIME that pushed me over the edge. I was already having misgivings about Facebook, as evidenced by my previous Digital Toaster post. Grossman confirmed my reservations and added fuel to the fire.

While many have been harping about Facebook's privacy issues, I think there are more fundamental problems with Facebook, such as the way it levels the social playing field in a manner that doesn't jibe with reality. As Grossman points out: on Facebook your connection to your wife and your plumber are essentially the same. For those still in school, this might seem inconsequential. But later on, to assume that everyone you encounter in life should be connected to you in exactly the same way—is absurd. Facebook life and real life are not equal.

Sure, you can be choosy about the friend requests you accept on Facebook, but what are you going to do when you receive a friend request from a casual acquaintance, somebody you cross paths with regularly but don't really know. Facebook has already shown that most people will take the least embarrassing route in these situations: to cave in and accept. The same applies to requests to Like an organization, a business or a politician, especially when it's being suggested by someone you know. By virtue of these many indirect choices, your Facebook identity eventually becomes an amalgam of those connected to you, not you yourself.

Most interesting to note in Grossman's article is the wave of collective narcissism that has been unearthed by Facebook. Unlike Warhol's prediction of everyone being famous for 15 minutes, Facebook gives us the chance to be famous for 15 seconds atop a microscopic soapbox that will be gone by tomorrow. Its immediacy is both alluring and addictive. Meanwhile, behind the scenes Facebook engineers mine our preferences, choices and even the text of our private messages, and they use that information to create marketing strategies for advertisers. We are so many mice in a very large maze, a marketing enterprise posing as a social experiment. Make no mistake about it, Facebook is first and foremost a business—a billion-dollar-a-year business.

Many people use Facebook to promote their businesses and careers. Social media marketing has become all the rage. I suspect, though, this trend will reach a saturation point, if it hasn't already. There's certainly nothing wrong with self-promotion, but I think we need to make a distinction between the social and the commercial. Like a real estate agent who relentlessly works the crowd at a private cocktail party, using social media for commercial gain can be disingenuous. If you have real friends on your friends list, you might want to think twice before selling to them.

So with these thoughts in mind, I bid my Facebook community farewell. I certainly won't be falling off the face of the Earth. If we were friends before Facebook, chances are I have you in my address book. Who knows, we might even find ourselves talking on the phone and really sharing something. It's time to get back to reality.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Letter from the President

I've been in touch with the President. I received my first email from President Obama right after he was elected. He wrote to thank me for the part I played in his becoming president. This amounted to my making a donation of $250 toward his campaign. Before the election I'd received numerous email updates from his campaign manager, but only after he was elected did I get one that ended with: Sincerely yours, Barack. I knew it was the same email that millions of other Americans probably received, but it still seemed special. Together, we'd done something pretty amazing.

With the midterm elections upon us, I receive regular emails from Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and numerous other Washington politicians. And that doesn't begin to account for the emails I receive from political organizations. If only I would send another $225, which will be matched by a mystery mogul, we could ensure that a Democratic majority is maintained in the U.S. Congress. So if I send my $225, does that mean that the rest of the Democratic Party machinery will know about it, that I did my part? I have my doubts. And what exactly would that money be used for?

Our national elections have devolved to audio/video shouting matches. The primary beneficiaries are the media outlets who air them. They're in a win-win situation. The stakes are high this election cycle, and both sides are determined to prevail. It's all about ad-dollars and saturation. Forget about civic innovation. Rhetoric has replaced innovation in our national discourse. Complex questions have been reduced to us-and-them sound bites. Our election process and our congress are in serious need of reinvention.

A recent faux-headline in The Onion had the American people hiring a lobbyist so they could get some things through congress. It's a funny concept, but perhaps not all that far from reality. One of the fundamental flaws in our system is that elected officials—especially those at the national level—are beholden to those who paid for their campaigns. And now more than ever, those are corporations. The government, aka the people, will have to wait in line.

Knowing this, I feel just a little strange sending off my $225 contribution, when it will simply be used to extend the broadcast madness. Does it really make sense to hit on the average voter for financial support while the congress spends billions like there's no tomorrow? There's got to be a better and fairer way to run a democracy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

10,000 Friends

I recently ran into one of my Facebook friends in a public situation. There was a mutual feeling of unease when we recognized each other, almost a kind of embarrassment. We barely know each other, yet we've probably shared some fairly personal moments via Facebook. Our connection originated from having Facebook friends in common, and we'd relied on those connections as justification for our being Facebook friends. This got me thinking about the depth of these connections, both with people you know and those you don't really know.

Andy Warhol once said, "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." Likewise, I think it could be said, in the future everyone will have 10,000 friends. While ten thousand might sound like a large number, in the context of a Facebook-connected world it is not so large. If you had only 100 Facebook friends and you allowed each of those friends to share your posts with 100 unique friends from their Facebooks, you'd have 10,000 connections. And that's only going out two degrees.

But I find myself asking: are these connections real? Even with people I know well, I find that communication via Facebook has its limitations. Sure, it's fun to share photos, comments and interesting links, but this is a far cry from actually being in the same room with someone. While Facebook has become a great tool for locating long lost friends, I find that it leaves me with a less-than-satisfied feeling after slogging through the news feed for an hour. I feel like I've been cheated, wasted my time in a quest for some real conversation.

Facebook posts are like dismembered conversations. We speak at each other, not to each other. Facebook allows us put in our two cents, but these conversations seem to lack the connectedness of actually being there. In a way, we are less accountable. Have we become spoiled in our splendid isolation? Have we dumbed down the meaning of the word "friend?"

My real friends deserve better.