A Battle Cry For The New Social Network
So long, Facebook
Not long ago, I read this post damning what Facebook has become.
I’ll admit I was sceptical. As someone who’s grown up as part of the social media generation, for whom from the age of about twelve or thirteen, MySpace, Bebo, and then Facebook has been a permanent fixture in our social lives, I’m used to those who think they’re older and wiser than myself denouncing Facebook as some kind of antisocial and useless evil. And then ignoring them, because, hey, Facebook was just the way we kids interacted now, and what’s wrong with that?
Most people who went on about how awful Facebook was just didn’t understand it on some basic level. They lamented that it was replacing real social contact and stunting our social skills, when really, for most kids, it just augmented these things to exist in the virtual world as well as the physical. They went on about cyber-bullying, which, although it can lead to some tragic results, was, for most of us, no more commonplace nor damaging than your average playground psycho.
Facebook was just fun, and allowed us to talk to our friends outside of school hours, when most of us were too young or had too much homework to be socialising that late at night. It allowed us to swap funny photos of ourselves and collectively reminisce about all those stupid things we did at lunchtimes, communally bitch about our teachers or maths homework, celebrate shared victories such as school sports matches or charity events, take up shared causes such as tuition fees or the need for a snow day, laugh at our in-jokes, and enjoy the feeling of community during events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, when every small triumph and commiseration was experienced together in real time.
It worked best as the extension of a real-world community.
But now, what real-world community contains people from what is probably over fifty different countries, scattered over continents, nations, age groups and languages? People that know you from several different and, in many instances, totally unconnected segments of your life? Segments of your life that you would like to keep unconnected? What real-world community allows you to meet someone at the age of nineteen,at a university in California, and then,almost the instant you are acquainted, allows you to scroll through five years of photos of their childhood life in their hometown on a different continent, with people you will never hope to know? To know the name of their school, their family members, their favourite holiday destinations, their teenage drunken debacles, their 14yr old outfit disasters, their adolescent boyfriends?
Facebook executives, employees, nerdos, whatever will protest: But you can change your privacy settings! You can restrict who sees what! Firstly, this is a great myth. I have experimented with it myself recently, and it’s actually kind of alarming the relatively little control Facebook gives you over some aspects of who can view your profile. Secondly, most of us joined Facebook before the enlightened times of friend lists and custom restricted posting, meaning we have at least three or four years of unrestricted stuff floating out there in cyberspace for anyone to see the moment they friend you. I mean, really, who has the time to go back through all those reams of crap — the 1000+ photos — and sift through it adjusting the privacy settings to make sure your new boss can’t see your lachrymose 13yr-old postings of Panic! At The Disco lyrics? And even now, who has the time to go through all 1,000 of their Facebook friends, organise them meticulously into lists, and then delicately handpick who can see each status update and photo? Answer: only the kind of weirdo who you wouldn’t want on a social network anyway.
Sometimes this troubles me so much that it seems easier just to delete the whole thing and be done with it rather than be constantly worried about how a serial killer could quite easily hunt me down should he so choose.
And yet, and yet. We stay on the social network because, as yet, there is no better alternative — communication has changed for good from the old days of telephones and emails, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to let go of the joys of instant sharing that has removed so much of the friction from social interactions.
So the way to go is not back, but forward. Something better will come along, I am sure of it. More and more people are growing dissatisfied with Facebook as it ceases to be new and cool and becomes viewed as more of a evil corporate mammoth, intent on exploiting your data for profit. That was fine when people enjoyed Facebook, but now, it feels less like enjoyment and more like an unwanted addiction, a distraction that saps time, energy and your soul. My fiction professor even said to our class this week: ‘I think Facebook is destroying my writing life.’
So I tried to devise what should be the mission statement for the next generation of social networks.
- It should be fun. Sounds obvious, but I only realised how un-fun Facebook had become — how little I was enjoying using it — when I started having fun using new things, like Snapchat. Once again I felt that frisson that the dawn of social networking first gave us — the excitement that someone that you love halfway across the world is, because of technology, able to experience this precise moment along with you.
- It should mirror, and add to, real-world relationships. Not warp and distort them into a strange Orwellian dimension where ‘stalking’ and immense narcissism have become accepted and commonplace. The most fun I ever had on a social network was before we even thought to call it by that name — when my Sea Scout troop had its own private online discussion board that only we could access. The sense of exclusivity — that this was something built for us, our own private social space — cannot be underestimated. It also imposed social standards, in that it was embarrassing to engage in blatant self-promotion amongst friends. I do not want to use Facebook to interact with strangers or near-strangers. I already have enough real-world friends, thanks.
- It should work as a tool for you. Steve Jobs thought that the computer was a tool for the mind. Similarly, the social network should be a social tool for you. All too often, now, it is easy to feel that you are a slave to Facebook, unwilling victim to its constant stream of distraction and meaningless updates, which render you only unproductive and emotionally shallow. Instead, the network should be something you actively use to improve the relationships with people that you love. Letting them know how much you miss them when you’re away, for example. Telling them about a book you think they’d really like. Bonding with them over shared interests — the equivalent of how I used to make friends with people when we swapped iPods on the bus and discovered we had similar music tastes.
- Privacy should be intuitive. Instead of being a laborious process of sorting and sifting, a respect for privacy and 100% transparency about how your data is being used should be the default for any new service.
- It should be creative and curious. Social networking should enrich our life experience, not feel like it’s taking away from it. Time spent online, instead of being viewed as unproductive ‘procrastination’, a replacement for want of better things to do, should be a journey of joy and discovery, encouraging us to appreciate the positive impact the reams of information freely available on the internet can have. Take Pinterest as an example — encouraging us to pick out and appreciate the vast wealth of resources the web has to offer. A social network should open your eyes to new ideas, allow you to take joy in the mutual appreciation of art, nature or music, enrich your mental bank and then allow you yourself to contribute something positive back to the community. It should encourage creativity,user generation and originality at every turn. For an example of how this might work, again, see Etsy.
- It should be something I want my (hypothetical) kids to spend time on. Right now, I’d forgive any parent who’s terrified at the thought of letting their kids onto social media sites. You only need to see the recent spate of tragedies from Ask.fm. Also there’s that niggling fear that — just like watching too much TV — social networks can make kids passive consumers, intellectually and socially stunted. Instead, if it’s the kind of fun, creative, safe learning space described above — a bit like an online preschool classroom — then it would be somewhere I’d be happy to let them spend time. As it should be.We won’t be able to shelter our kids from the internet. It’s just everywhere these days. So, we should make the experience good for them.
As I’ve alluded to above, there are signs of hope that this is already happening. I think there really is potential in some of the new services — Snapchat, Pinterest, Etsy, Path. But they will never really replace Facebook unless they are fully socially integrated, and have the critical volume of users it now has. I’m on Path now, but I only have one friend, so it’s kind of difficult right now to create the future.
But come with me, and you too can be free of all the meaningless crap that has clogged up your mental space and made you petty, uncreative and unable to concentrate for more than a few seconds. Unable to just stare out of a train window at the view without checking your news feed. Unable to stop stalking your ex’s profile.
Let’s all do it together. Come with me. Then you too can be free!