Friday, August 1, 2008

Social Futilities

There are too many social networking sites. Enough that there are emerging, competing standards for a universal login / universal online ID like Open ID and Friend Connect, so that you are have one ID for all the myriad sites that want you to have an ID. I have even tried Gravitar (I don't like it -- the restrictions on nicknames are arbitrary and stupid).

But what is the point of all this divergence and reconvergence and redivergence -- and so on? How many social network utilities does one need? I am already a member of MySpace, Facebook, Linked In, Plaxo, Friendster, Orkut, Tribes, Notch Up, Naymz, Twitter, Flixster, Good Reads, vfxConnection, Digg, Stumble Upon, Del.ici.ous, Flickr, YouTube, Live Journal, and of course Blogger (and probably a dozen others I'm just forgetting about). I was gung-ho about social utilities for a brief period, convinced by friends and the media that they provided good value in terms of fun, meeting people, and career opportunities. However, I quickly realized this was just another "history repeats itself" moment for the Internet -- social utilities are just Web user interfaces slapped on old ideas that have been around since my BBS days. Even Digg and Twitter are just interface updates of the original core concept of the BBS -- a bulletin board. People invite me to join new social utilities at least once a week. I literally can't keep track of them all, and considering how little value they provide, why bother?

I rarely log-in to most of them. I just don't have time to compete with, for example, the seemingly full-time Diggers, in terms of becoming a popular contributor of articles. (And, like being a DJ, I'm unclear as to why merely presenting the creative work of other people earns respect in the first place.) I certainly don't have time to take random stabs at befriending people who happen to like one of the bands I like. Indeed I don't have time to do much of anything online these days except write. My life outside the Internet, the actual physical life of food and wine and travel and art and literature and myriad other interesting things, which we're supposed to be living, takes precedence these days over jostling for virtual position with people who have too much time on their hands. And the irritable idiots who patrol the Internet looking to assert themselves in their self-appointed roles of cybercop (for all manner of "infractions" usually related to their disagreeing with something you think) just aren't worth the bother. When I was a teenager it seemed like grand fun, all this online arguing and jostling for the role of minor digital celebrity or king of some obscure corner of the networks (when I was a teenager, there wasn't a single monolithic Internet -- things like FidoNet and Compuserve were still separate worlds). Nowadays, it's dull as dirt.

I could look at the explosion of these sites as information overload, but the problem is that many of them don't really have much in the way of information. At least, not any that's useful to me. For all the effort some people put into social networking, what rewards do they reap? It's difficult to say. The occasional Internet phenom gets their Warholian 15 minutes and perhaps some cash, but people also still can get their moment in the sun doing decidedly old-school things like writing books -- on paper. What sites to engender success of some kind are the ones which are most focused on having something to say (mostly blogs, art/photo portfolios, and plain old hand-built websites).

The majority of social networking sites, like Facebook, do not facilitate anything but time-wasting. Facebook's stock in trade are games which are actually less fun than the old mail-order, turn-based games of the 80s on which their gameplay style is based. Old promises of the Internet being interactive, and therefore engaging people in new ways, seem to be broken most hypocritically by social utilities, as these sites all promised that their raison d'etre was to revitalize that aspect of the Internet. Most of them serve primarily as engines for passive fandom, combined with the same kind bickering that has been around since BBSes and Usenet. Media stories explaining the necessity of having such a "presence" uniformly fail to explain why, other than that this is the latest fad in herdlike conformity to sweep through the human race. It is very primal, the urges that play out in social networking. Each page is like digital urine on a virtual tree, marking territory and announcing to all sniffers-by that you are the alpha dog of a whole realm of Web pages.

But there are no trees, and the territory is free. It's a safe, non-zero-sum game of territorial conquest. Sure, occasionally the ego-bashing Vandals swarm through your digital space, stabbing at everything they see with all the elegance of a ruptured sewer pipe -- but there's no real territory for them to seize, and anyone with any sense merely ignores these intrusions (or, if you're sufficiently bored, they are generally easy to make sport of as their own egos and IQs are nothing to write home about). The toothless predators are safely ensconced in their mothers' basements, and only those chronically predisposed to being victims are ever victimized by them. But other than the chance at an occasional dull fight with a halfwit, or to waste time deleting spam, what exactly does digital social networking provide its users?

Once upon a time, it was a decent way to expand one's network of actual friends. I've made friends -- the kind I'd at least e-mail off-system, if not get to see in-person -- both on MU*s (Qwest, then Delusions, in particular) and Orkut. But, since then, all this social networking just seems to serve to either amuse or annoy people I already know. Nearly all of my connections on Facebook, for example, are people I know. By force of pure number of users, I have managed to reconnect with old friends through Linked In, Facebook, and MySpace -- so that was a genuine benefit -- but I still immediately try to shunt those conversations to real-space or e-mail rather than use the slow, buggy, clunky and advertising-laden interfaces of any of these sites. And how I'd get to know people I don't already know on Facebook or MySpace is uncertain, because their message boards are either nonexistant, not nearly as active as they once were on Orkut (before exhaustion at dealing with spammers drove most people away), or active but vapid (no creative role-playing, or joke telling, or word games, or exquisite corpses, or even debating science or politics -- just the same boring trolling and arguments about sex and fandom that have been rehashed over and over since at least the early days of Usenet). Sure, MySpace is ok for finding out about bands I'd never heard of before -- but frankly, even though I can hear tracks for free on MySpace, I still think magazines like Maximum Rock N' Roll or review sites like Heathen Harvest do a better job of organizing and presenting information about what bands and albums might be worth hearing.

Blogging (words or photos or videos) has its benefits, in at least it requires thought and activity on the part of the individual to create the material. Much of what is presented is not worth a first look, never mind a second, but I can't criticize people for at least trying. What complaints I do have about blogging will come with more details in a follow-up post some time soon, but let me state that it revolves around the problem of totally devaluing content, and leaving only advertising as a means of compensation for content creators. Eventually there will be nothing left to advertise, because people will come to expect to get everything for free (even physical goods) in return for watching ads.

Even with social utility sites, the cost of all this "benefit" is non-stop advertising (or, in the case of Facebook, invasive datamining and targeted spamming). I'm not opposed to the idea of social networking on-line, indeed I did some pioneering work in this area as a software developer in the 1990s, but before I sign-up for one more social networking site, whoever invites me better be able to explain what conceivable benefit will come to me, and at what cost before I even bother to spend the time necessary to fill-out the sign-up form.


hatsumi said...

I hate social networking sites. I have done my damnedest to belong to as few as humanly possible. I admit that I do tend to cave when one my sisters invites me. (This was the case with GoodReads.) My profile at LinkedIn was a recommended thing at my office since our executives use it and I'm the executive assistant. I have a MySpace account which I have done absolutely NOTHING to for the sole purpose of monitoring my son's MySpace page, which his FRIENDS set up for him. As soon as I learned about that, we changed the e-mail, password, and EVERYTHING. He uses it to chat with his friends. I hate it, but I monitor it like the over-obsessed parent that I probably seem to

No where on my blogger page is there any listing of my first and last name. I despise the idea of someone typing my name into Google and finding out stuff about me, like where I work, etc. I cherish my anonymity, but more than that I honestly believe that real social networking requires face-to-face, IN PERSON work and effort. It's more meaningful, more effective, and just better behavior. It seems to me that social networking sites give humans a safe place to paint the best pictures of themselves that they can and it's easy to ensure that your not-so-great personality traits get conveniently left out of your picture. It's cheating.

On the other hand, I really do enjoy writing my blog and writing articles at gemaga. It's anonymous, though.

I guess it all boils down to the fact that I'm very picky about who my friends are. I don't let just anybody in. Yes, I'm a stuck up little bitch, but hey, that's just part of what makes me who I am. ;-) I don't try to pretend that I'm not.