Sunday, March 15, 2009

talking nonsense about Facebook: nonsense squared!

Professional reactionaries, or put-on reactionaries, are as much of a characteristic feature of Internet culture as their polar opposite, professional neophiles and boosters.

I can't remember a moment in the last few years where there hasn't been someone making a good living by bemoaning the kids of today and their...enter in the public prints. Cass Sunstein, who thought the Web would lead to a catastrophically unbalanced culture so unlike the serious, cultured debate of the Washington Post opinion pages. (Later, of course, he amended this when those awful kids with their computers won the election.) Susan Greenfield, who explained how "the screen generation of the Internet" were rewiring their brains to be illiterate, apparently unaware that essentially everything on the Internet involves lots and lots of text.

It's worth pausing a moment to consider the structural factors here; nothing is more traditional than bemoaning our fallen times, which after all serves the twin purposes of appealing to the ego of everyone who remembers or thinks they remember the golden past, and also managing the expectations of the present. Nostalgia, and its flip, declinism, are political acts, and compulsory nostalgia is one of the worst things in Britain.

Now James Harkin believes that the Internet is a bit like suburbia, presumably because a hatred of suburbs is fashionable again. Here he is, claiming victory in the Guardian.

Basically, he's locked on to some data that shows that, despite the large friends lists Facebook users maintain, they only exchange messages with a few of them. By a soaring leap of assertion, he concludes that everything back to Milgram's small world theory is nonsense and that online communities are useless. Oddly enough, he doesn't suggest any answer for why so many people seem to like them if this is so.

There is a huge, huge cock-up here, though. Facebook (which I hold absolutely no brief for - a closed data-sink for advertisers and wankers, no more and no less) provides several different ways to communicate. "Messages" are only one - they are the equivalent of the private message function on most BBSs, which permits two participants to communicate one-to-one without showing the message to others. But Facebook is primarily a status updater - you set your current status message and others see it. This is a one-to-many, public communication system, and his terms exclude it entirely. Further, there is also the "wall" which lets you send messages to individuals which are also public.

Arguably, this sort of public, multicast or broadcast communication is much more, well, public - much more what he claims to want - than, say, telephony.

So the argument only works by excluding a huge amount of activity. Either Harkin doesn't know this, in which case he perhaps doesn't have any business writing about it, or else he does and he's hoping his readers don't, in which case he's being intellectually dishonest.

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