Generally, I wouldn’t consider a return to posting on my blog something worthy of announcement, but then I never expected to stop posting for over a year.* During that time I have gotten both busier academically and more involved in the world(s) of platform-based social media – specifically, facebook and twitter – and that’s taken away much of the time I would have had for the blog.
Since my growing dissatisfaction with those social media platforms (facebook in particular) is a big part of why I’m going to start blogging again, I’ll start this post with that.
I’ve been on both facebook and twitter since 2009, but never really made much use of them until last year. I was a late adopter on facebook; for various reasons, I had been actively not signing up. When I finally gave in, my first facebook update read:
“Am no longer completely avoiding facebook. Now I’m incompletely avoiding it.”
I did not post again for over a year. As for twitter, I’d read and posted sporadically from the time I signed up, but in the past six months I’ve finally started checking in and posting a bit more consistently.
In both cases, my increased usage came not from spending more time online, but from the growth of my own in-person social networks. I simply had met and gotten to know more people who were on twitter and facebook; it began to seem natural to spend more time there. Especially if I wanted to participate in some of the conversations that I knew were going on.
This is not to say that I’ve been using both services in the same way. Facebook for me tends to be more about literal “friend” relationships: I don’t run the apps that interact with other sites, don’t “like” or become a “fan” of organizations, and as a result pretty much everything I see comes from my friends – and most of that is simply stuff from everyday life. I also manage my privacy in ways that are more or less consistent with talking with groups of in-person friends.
I have some of that on twitter, but partly because of its public nature, and partly because of the asymmetry of follow/follower relationships I tend to use it more as a professional/academic/informational service. In fact, I originally signed up just because having an account made it easier to manage the “following” I was already doing via RSS (which I don’t think twitter supports anymore). Even though getting to know more people who happen to have twitter accounts was the big change that’s gotten me to use twitter more, the environment has always seemed a bit more distant to me, more like a public square. (I should add: I don’t see this as a bad thing.) This doesn’t mean I avoid all mentions of lunch or sandwiches, but it’s just never been a big part of how I tweet.
This may be why I’m generally more satisfied at the moment with twitter than with facebook, even though facebook is the more “social” (in the sense of socializing) place for me, as well as the service I’ve spent more time on. To lapse into cliche for a moment, I feel like I have a sense of what twitter is, and it is what it is. Twitter has stayed remarkably consistent over the years I’ve been on it, even down to the interface (for better or for worse). There have been a bunch of updates, but most of them have been aimed at making it easier to do the same things, or to pull some of those activities, like link shortening and photo posting, under twitter’s own umbrella, rather than leaving them to third party applications. But like the old twitter web interface, the new twitter has at its core a box at the top of the page for writing your tweets and a stream of posts below it.
After being a bit overwhelmed at first by the sheer volume of tweets, I’ve gotten used to just dipping into the stream when I get the chance, or checking at the end of the day and scrolling down for a bit, looking for interesting links and conversations. Sure, sometimes I wish there were better ways to follow threads of conversation that span more than two or three people, or I want to have a bit of extra space for a few more characters in my posts, but if I really want to write at length, there are other places for that.**
Facebook, on the other hand, I find both appealing and maddening; recent changes have tipped the scale towards maddening. On the plus side, it’s proven surprisingly effective as a place simply to “hang out” (even despite not being a google plus-style “hangout”), and it’s been great for maintaining contact with people I don’t see much in person anymore. The posts are capped at just enough characters (420) to make me feel like I can express something on many (but not all) occasions when I feel expressive, and they’ve done a good job integrating photos with the text boxes and links.
In fact, the photo handling, while not at the level of flickr or other photo-specific sites, is better than anything I’ve found on the (free) blogger and wordpress services. And the reciprocal nature of my “friend” relationships means I’m not just interacting with real people, but I can actually see that happening – whereas blogging sometimes has the feel of posting bills on a wall along a crowded street, even when I know people are reading (silently).
So what’s the problem? It’s not the advertising, which I actually don’t see a lot of. I don’t begrudge facebook the need to make money. It’s also not really the proprietary nature of the system: twitter has the same issue with respect to the underlying platform, though of course most tweets are publicly viewable to anyone. It’s not even the privacy issues; I’m not happy with the ways facebook has rolled out new features, but I recognize that the settings have gotten more precise and fine-grained over time. They’re probably more complicated than they need to be, so there’s a learning curve, but they seem to work for me.
No, the big issue for me is the lack of control you’re given over what you contribute to the site. (Again, twitter has this same issue, but the ways I limit my usage there mean I run into these frustrations less often.) This runs all the way from the initial composition of an update to the management of what’s already been posted.
I get that facebook has broken down many of the barriers that may have been keeping people off of the interactive web: anyone can post a link there and not have to worry about those “<a href>” tags or even the location of the “embed link” button in an editor. But sometimes I just want some fully-enabled html. Sure, there are some unicode workarounds for things like strikethrough, but it’s not easy to format text. Or say I want to post two links in one update: only one will be given facebook’s automatically-generated “preview” link. Sure, I can post the second link as a comment on the first, but that seems silly, and anyway, if more than a few comments get posted on that thread, facebook will automatically hide the one with link under a “see more” tag once it’s considered an “old” comment. And don’t even bother trying to post a link to match a particular word in an update: the lack of enabled html rules that out as well.
The result is that facebook (and again, twitter) is, from a page design perspective, pretty much a monotonous, homogeneous stream, with only the particulars of links, photos, and raw text changing among the mass of pre-set elements. Unlike blogs, or even e-mail, there is no title or header or subject line: there’s just a text box. I’m a fan of the bloggy rhetorical style that involves juxtaposing a title with a short bit of text in the body of the post (often containing a link); this is impossible on a platform like facebook. Long posts are possible, but only if they’re formed as so-called “notes,” which aren’t well-integrated with the rest of the system. And forget about using categories or tags.*** Bulk management of previous updates is essentially impossible: want to change the settings on a bunch of posts, or maybe delete them? You can do it, but you have to do it one at a time. Your best bet for searching for content is to scroll down a bunch of times to extend the page and then use ctrl-f (or its equivalents).
The recent changes are the last straw for me. As John Battelle writes, facebook is positioning itself to be even more of a storyteller: the words may be the users’ own, but the structure of the narrative and to a very real extent its main content will be up to the platform. This has long been true of the mysteriously-generated “top news” viewing option available on user’s facebook page, but until the re-design users had the alternative of selecting a “recent changes” option that provided, in reverse chronological order, everything they wanted to see from their friends. I never really understood how the top news worked: occasionally it would highlight for me some conversation I had missed on an older post on some friend’s wall, but most of the time it pushed to the top updates that the facebook algorithms must have deemed popular (whether or not they interested me) while burying other updates I wanted to see. I used the chronological option almost exclusively.
Now, apparently, everything a user sees on the front page is going to be like “top news” and it drives me crazy. On the reading side, I often have no idea why something has been pushed to the top of my page, and I end up missing things I want to see. Facebook offers a new option to mark stories in such a way that supposedly indicates that you want to see more like them, but there’s no explanation for how it determines similarity: if I mark something because it’s well-written, will it get filed as “about music” instead? Who knows?
I’ve noticed that facebook won’t even put some things I post on my own front page. (That is, I log in and go to facebook.com and I don’t see them, no matter how far I scroll down.) They do get posted to my profile (technically, my “wall”) in the same way as before, and some friends have reported seeing some of them on their front pages. But why should I share something if I don’t know that it will reach the people I’d like to share it with? How can I refer to the chronology of what I post if the lack of chronology in subsequent presentation means that my posts will appear out of order, if they appear at all for some friends? By taking control of the content this way, facebook has both weakened the bonds of reciprocity that have kept me on the site and stripped the platform of some of the few ways a user could express individuality through narrative. The system has inched towards the model of posting bills along a crowded street – and the users can use only one type of printing press.
In claiming that this new Facebook will tell the “story of your life”, it’s like they took this passage from Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (hey, it’s an embedded link) as a model, not a warning (hey, it’s an enabled blockquote):
It is not, I apprehend, a healthy kind of mental occupation, to devote ourselves too exclusively to the study of individual men and women. If the person under examination be one’s self, the result is pretty certain to be diseased action of the heart, almost before we can snatch a second glance. Or, if we take the freedom to put a friend under our microscope, we thereby insulate him from many of his true relations, magnify his peculiarities, inevitably tear him into parts, and, of course, patch him very clumsily together again. What wonder, then, should we be frightened by the aspect of a monster, which, after all–though we can point to every feature of his deformity in the real personage–may be said to have been created mainly by ourselves!
So I’ve decided to re-exercise just a little bit of the control I used to have over my own personally-generated content and bring back this blog. It’s still on the wordpress.com free platform, which may make it a part of what Battelle is calling the dependent web, but it still offers far more flexibility than I’ve found on a micro-blogging platform. Maybe some day I’ll be ready to move onto my own domain. I’ve been considering it.
In the meantime, after thinking about it for a while, I just can’t delete my facebook account outright: I still like the in-the-moment social aspect, and I want to keep my network. But I’m reducing my own personal footprint: pulling photos and old posts, not signing up for any services that will share things that I don’t explicitly choose to share. Some of that data will no doubt live on behind the scenes, but I just don’t trust them enough to keep sharing more.
Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long here, probably as a reaction to being cooped up for so long in walled worlds with strict character limits. So I’ll just say that the “gotten busier” part of my year away from this blog to which I briefly referred above largely comes down to this: I’ve decided to revive my history phd. I still have a couple of terms left on my archives and library degrees, which means that for the time being I’m working on three degrees at once. More on that later.
*If you’re looking at your RSS feeds and wondering where this post came from, hi! I hope this blog will continue to provide whatever it was that led you to subscribe in the first place, if you can remember that.
**In fact, I’m usually in danger of writing too much when given the chance. This post is probably a good example of that.
***You can “tag” people, but that’s more like identifying or notifying them; it’s not a subject system or taxonomy or anything like that.