Facebook changes matters more than we think
Throughout the day on Sept 21, I saw a flurry of responses to changes in the Facebook interface. I added several “Dear Facebook” messages to the sarcastic fray. I also read a couple of nice news pieces, like this one from Salon.com, analyzing both the changes and the responses. That night, I started to see the other perspective, represented well by this image.
I laughed, knowing that in part this image is correct to chide us for fussing about such a minor thing. At the same time, this graphic risks oversimplifying and burying some key issues that don’t get addressed as much as the actual changes.
The way our technologies evolve now, in the present-tense first world, affects significantly how they are taken up or conceptualized later. Facebook is in many ways bigger than itself. It claims to be a social network service, yet in practice, resembles a public service (like telephone lines, operators, and yellow pages). It functions on a massive scale (750 million users). It controls the way we receive information (using obscured filters).
To this picture, add commercialization and personalized marketing. Then add the fact that each of us users has invested a lot of time and energy to build strong friendship networks and tweak this interface to suit our needs. We’re unwilling to give that up and start again; in many ways, inertia keeps us locked into this particular service.
We may be complaining about seemingly silly things. But the function of complaining goes beyond the simple goal of getting a chronological order back into one’s news feed (which is just as banal as it sounds). Our protests help push back against a corporate model that anticipates we will either unthinkingly accept infrastructures that don’t work well or we will notice, shrug our shoulders, and accept these things as inevitable.
When 750 million people use a personal networking service like Facebook and it becomes the predominant nexus and template for social activity, globally, it becomes more than just a free convenience. And it affects many more people than current users. Thinking ten years down the road instead of for the moment, there seems to be more than just inconvenience at stake when we don’t know what’s operating under the surface. There’s a taken for granted infrastructure in the making. If we’re not careful, we become the frogs in the frying pan, who don’t notice the change in temperature all around us until it’s too late.