Friday, June 24, 2016

Facebook and the "Stream"

It feels like Facebook is just another social media platform, only special because it's the commonplace one that everyone seems to be relying on.

But I do think it's interesting to look at its form, and actually, how the design of Facebook has changed, together with our corresponding habits, because I think they are tightly correlated.  For example, the "poke" feature of Facebook used to be this big thing (though I never partook in it) and people would actually be incentivized to log back in so that they could be sure to "poke back" their friends.  Maybe that seems super silly to all of us now, but it was true and I heard people talk about it.  I wonder if that was a fad that just died out, whether it was something that people did just because it was "new and cool", or whether it died out because it no longer makes sense with our current culture and models of online interaction.

When your list of friends on Facebook is more like an address book than an actual group of "friends", direct interpersonal communication seems to not fit as well into the paradigm anymore.  When Facebook first started, the "wall" was a big thing.  People would always talk about posting on each other's "wall".  It was your own little collection of interactions -- and more than that, it was usually filled with personal messages that people left for you.  And when I went to my "wall" I could see all of these conversations, and it would make me happy thinking of all of those people.

But that doesn't exist anymore.  Even the term "wall" is deprecated, in favor of "timeline".  Because somewhere along the line, your profile stopped being a place where you and other people could share and leave messages for each other.  Instead, it became all about *you*.  Your photos, your activity updates, your shared articles.  And yes, people would still respond to your posts.  They would still comment on your activity.  That is, until the advent of the "Like" button.

What really matters nowadays is the concept of the "stream", or activity feed, which Twitter also brought along.  Somewhere along the line we stopped visiting each other's virtual online "houses" in order to interact with them, and instead we simply started shouting at each other, hoping to get a voice in the "stream".  And if you didn't shout anything interesting, no one would look at you.  You would not be *liked*.  And so the system encourages people to post positive updates about themselves, pretty photos, and funny videos, so that the crowd would look at them, and they would be *liked*.

I don't actually remember the last time I posted something to someone's page, and looking through other people's profiles it seems that it's just not a common practice anymore.  To be fair, it does seem a little weird that if I wanted to talk to you I would post it publicly for the rest of the world to see, so maybe that was a model of conversation that didn't really make sense in the first place.  But I think this is the part about online social interactions that bothers me most -- that the primary model we have adopted for our online social interactions is to have this stream of updates that is constantly in flux, being looked at by a crowd.

No longer do we *choose* who to interact with online -- we simply look at the ticker and see only those stories that were curated for us by computer algorithms.  And I think we are all lying to ourselves when we think that by interacting in this way we can still remain connected meaningfully.  Should I really consider someone my "friend" just because I allowed them to be one of two hundred people all shouting into the same microphone at everyone else?

This is also why I feel uncomfortable with birthdays on Facebook.  Because it made it too real to me, how the attention of all of my "friends" is so easily controlled by these algorithms and the platform.  And it makes me feel lonely sometimes, when I am in a space where no one bothers to reach out to me, or to each other, on their own accord.

I (and some of my other friends) like to write handwritten letters.  Have you ever received a handwritten letter from a friend before?  It's a wonderful feeling, especially in today's age.  But something I realized is that it doesn't just feel wonderful because it's tangible, physical, and took that person's time and effort.  Yes, all of those things are important, and make handwritten letters special.  But I would actually feel really happy receiving the same message online in a message or e-mail, too.  Because that person reached out to me.  They were thinking of me, and expressed it to me.  And that's something that doesn't happen in our online social spaces anymore.

That's what scares me.  That we are all too busy looking at the stream rolling by to reach out to each other, as we once did.  We no longer say "Hi!" to each other because we are too busy saying "Look at me!" to the entire world.  And this in turn encourages us to turn into marketers for our own personal self-image, in order to garner the attention of our friends.  Should I really have to shout in order to receive attention from the people I call "friends"?

It makes me wonder what would happen if we took away the activity feed altogether.

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