OK, here’s the deal. The topic of this post is completely unimportant. It’s way less important than middle east revolutions or Pacific natural disasters. It doesn’t, cosmically speaking, matter at all. And yet, regardless of all the more important stuff, this topic gets beaten to death every week.
Facebook. Good or bad? Sainted or evil? Dead or alive?
Let us first divide the (digitally aware) population in two. Those who use social networks and those who don’t. Those who don’t will have their reasons, almost always ill-founded, but cannot help answer my questions. If you don’t use a product, how can you judge it? You can’t. The other group, social network users, will choose one or more networks to participate in. It seems the overwhelming majority of them choose to participate in Facebook. Why?
A big part of the answer lies in my last statement. If you want to connect with most of your friends easily then clearly you have to go where most of your friends are. That’s certainly the reason I participate on Facebook. It is also a very similar reason to why, about 12 years ago, I bought my first PC and a copy of the Windows operating system. Not my first computer, my first PC. Almost everybody else was buying the same and, at the time, I felt it inevitable that I should go in that direction also. A little over 4 years ago I reversed that decision. I bought a Mac. I did that because I was convinced there was a better alternative to what I had been using.
Back in the days of the VHS versus BetaMax battle, VHS won and everyone who had a VCR soon ended up with VHS. It made no sense to own a BetaMax when the infrastructure (tape manufacture and distribution) was clearly going to favour a single format. Two competing formats for a single goal was an inefficient model. Cassette tape versus vinyl was a little different because there were clear differences in portability versus quality. An audiophile would choose vinyl every time. Then Sony came along with the Walkman. No way was vinyl ever going to go that portable, so the two formats co-existed for their respective markets. When CD arrived in the 80s, it promised high quality and portability and ultimately won over both preceding formats. Once again, the infrastructure to produce the physical goods went the way of the masses for efficiency’s sake and vinyl and cassette tape quickly faded.
Around the time CDs were taking over the music industry, personal computers were hitting their stride. No longer game-playing curios, they began to show promise in other areas and we saw the beginnings of the ubiquity we now know. One “format” became dominant – the “PC”. More specifically, the IBM PC-compatible. While many people talk of the “PC versus Mac” battle, in fact the battle occurs on a different level. The Mac and PC are merely infrastructure – much like the VHS and BetaMax players, the turntables and decks. The media in use was now software. Just like you couldn’t stick an LP in a cassette deck or CD player, neither could you put software written for Mac on a PC.
Making my jump from PC to Mac was not a simple one. Actually, that’s not true. Convincing myself to make the jump was the difficult part. The actual transition was quite easy. I did have to consider the software angle but fortunately I had previously made that problem a lot easier for myself due to a little thing we like to call the Internet. I had already begun using GMail for my everyday email and had progressed my web sites to using online tools instead of relying on specific software on the PC. I had moved much of my computing onto the infrastructure of the internet. Most of the rest of my computer use at the time was simple and task-based. Converting a FLAC audio file to MP3 is not difficult to achieve on any personal computer and once it’s done, it’s done.
Now let’s fast forward to today. What is the infrastructure that social networks rely on? The Internet, of course. So looking back at our history, we see that infrastructure was the primary reason that any format or platform became dominant. Seeing as all social networks make use of the same infrastructure there is no significant technical or mechanical barrier to change. You only need to look at the fortunes of Alta Vista – the internet’s premier search engine until Google came along – to see that massive swings can occur for very simple reasons and in relatively short timeframes. Google was better and was not hog-tied by the need to overcome any delivery infrastructure problems.
In my recent experience, more and more people are choosing to forsake the world of the PC (i.e. Windows) for the lure of Mac (i.e. OS X). With very, very few exceptions, none are looking back. Whether you like it or not, OS X is a better experience for most people. If you’re a super geek with a penchant for changing everything, making it bend to your will, then go download a Linux distro or two and leave us regular folk to discuss this politely. I’ve used computers for about 30 years now, professionally for over 20 of those years. I’ve made many personal studies of “stuff that works” and “stuff that doesn’t” – usually by accident and mostly by using them. I can honestly say that in my objective view of today’s personal computing landscape you don’t have to, and shouldn’t, suffer the myriad dramas that the Windows operating system offers. I haven’t yet experienced Windows 7, but all previous versions are more trouble than they’re worth when there are simpler, better alternatives to be had. For most people.
But that’s not the (long delayed) point of this post. The point is this. There is every chance that you only use Facebook because everyone else does. Many of you are using Windows for the same reason. In both cases, it’s not the only and certainly not the best platform. Most people I know on Facebook complain about it at one time or another – some frequently. Well, you have the power in your hands. No corporation or cost stands in your way of jumping ship. If Facebook sucks, you have only yourself to blame for sticking around.
Twitter is not a replacement for Facebook, it’s something different. But it may be all you need or want. Don’t disparage what you haven’t tried. (Merely signing up is not enough.) Disapora, on the other hand is a replacement for Facebook. It’s early days yet, but this largely functional product runs rings around Facebook for simplicity and does the key things most people join Facebook for – communicating with their friends. Let’s call it “social networking.”
Does Diaspora have games, quizzes, pokes and likes? No. Does it have complex and ever changing privacy controls? No! Does it make it hard to control who sees what? No!! It’s a very simple platform that does social networking the way you probably thought Facebook would. The product came about precisely because of all the drama Facebook has caused. The primary reason I am using and supporting Diaspora is because I want to see Facebook have a decent competitor. I believe this will be it. Once it hits its stride, all that stands in the way of success is social inertia. Well, that and they’d better not start making the same mistakes Facebook did.
And that brings me to a final, related point. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the government.” The premise of the statement is reasonable only if vote casting is done from a position of knowledge. Of all parties. Indeed, how can you claim a representative stands best for your views if you do not know the views of his opponents? By the same token, I don’t think it is fair to complain about Facebook if you haven’t made an honest attempt to look at alternatives. And much as a large section of the voting public pay little attention to detail, instead mopping up campaign slogans and propaganda, so, too, do many of the social networkers assume Facebook is the “cat’s whiskers” simply because that’s where everyone is. I don’t even have to tell you it’s not. Most of you are complaining already.
And this is where I come in. Think of me as your independent candidate. I’ll stick to the issues and all votes will be conscience votes. But rest assured, I will be out there campaigning. If I see discourse on the nature of Facebook, please expect me to make my point. If I take it too far, then tell me to pull my head in. I don’t mean to offend, I just mean to educate so you can make the best choice for you. Yes, I continue to suffer Facebook for your benefit. You bet I will complain.