So, I’ve been a very naughty Facebook researcher. A few days ago, I tried to delete my Facebook account. Despite my best attempts, I’ve only gotten as far as deactivating it, thanks to the insane demands of Facebook. I’ll save that story for another post, because its a fun one.
I’ve been toying with the idea of deleting my account for a while now. There’s a bunch of reasons. A lot of it has to do with privacy and IP issues (did you know Facebook owns everything you upload?) I’ve also had an account since 2004 and convinced a lot of my friends to join, so I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be on Facebook. I was curious about what it’s like for everyone else (or at least that’s my excuse for being a Facebook researcher with no Facebook account… heh). But, mainly, it was my growing weariness with the increasingly performative nature of personal conversations that are carried on on the wall, for everyone to see and know how popular you are. I’m totally complicit in this, and I’m very aware that I’m writing for an audience when I’m leaving wall messages, even though we all pretend we aren’t.* I’m beginning to notice this personal/public audience split is decreasing the amount of genuine, meaningful and intimate exchanges I have with friends. When you are writing for a public audience, you aren’t writing everything you’d want to say to a friend in private.
I’m not sure when Facebook added this feature, but what really made me want to run away was when I started noticing that random snippets from other people’s wall conversations were appearing in my minifeed. So now these public conversations are even more public, and are randomly broadcast out to your friends. The weird thing is, there’s no “earlier” or “archive” on the minifeed, and the stuff that appears there seems to be based on constantly filling the page with new items, rather than actually representing what happened and when. So, unlike LiveJournal’s friends list (my all time favourite web app), you don’t actually get a reliable or meaningful stream of what your friends are up to, and you can’t be sure they are seeing what you’re doing either. It seems that the minifeed isn’t actually about keeping up to date with your friends, but something else. The design of the minifeed gives me the sense that we’re taking on elements of blogjects, feeding the Facebook zeitgeist and creating this huge mass of depersonalized random data, which is feed back to us on the minifeed and becomes our means of interaction with one another. We interact with the depersonalized mass, rather than each other as individuals. That’s why the feed is random and has no archive. All that matters is a consistent stream of newness, rather than the actual content.
Gosh, I sound like a luddite or one of those old school internet researchers who, as my technology-journalist-friend Nicolas said so hilariously, thinks he understands the entire philosophical implication of the internet, but still takes 5 seconds to click a dialogue box. But, despite all my concerns (theoretical or otherwise), it was actually my discovery of the difficulty in actually getting off Facebook that sealed the deal in my decision to delete my account. As I’ll write about in my next post, the huge amount of work involved in actually deleting your Facebook account is something I’m sure we can all agree is worth worrying about.
*Or maybe we’re all in denial. A surprising finding in Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross’ 2006 survey of Facebook users was that people reported their own use as socially acceptable (finding classmates, keeping in touch etc.) but reported everyone else’s use in negative terms, such as using Facebook for self-promotion or attention whoring.