Why 'Frictionless' Media Sharing on Facebook Misses the Point

The Best Media Writing of the Week

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Mark, we didn't want anyone to know we played Chumbawumba.
Mark, we didn't want anyone to know we played Chumbawumba. Credit: Paul Sakuma

There are two companies operating right now for which a new product announcement causes a proper spectacle. Apple news in the Jobs era brought with it sweetness and light. We don't know what will happen now, but, for years, it was the same. The home team has won. The troops have returned -- cue the ticker tape. Christmas morning. A puppy's wet nose.

Facebook news, on the other hand, triggers a complex working out of things on a mass scale, redolent of the Kubler-Ross model for the acceptance of death, though not so linear. Look at your feed now, on this week of the Facebook developer extravaganza, and you'll see friends at various stages of anger, depression, denial, bargaining and acceptance, some of which feelings are directed at changes that have yet to be implemented. There will be one more stage and that is Mashablization, the reduction of news to enumerable steps or lessons with a clear takeaway tailored for anyone who fancies himself a social-media expert. Which is everyone.

Some things are lost with each one of these Facebook changes, but they are not only matters of usability, navigation, privacy and other factors in our part-time but ever-more-involving jobs working as ad impressions for a rich company in Palo Alto, Calif. The stuff that inconveniences you in the short-term may make you rage with a hotness that , if spotted by an alien scout, would either send the visitor whimpering back to Zebulon or alarm him onto war footing, but it's only so important. You will adapt. Or you will leave. What's lost in the larger sense, not only in the Facebook project but in the general trend of surrendering our memories to algorithms, is different and doesn't lend itself to a readily tweetable social-media know-how story. It has to do with our jobs as human beings and how the descriptions are being rewritten. Very few writers now capture that . Two of the best are The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal and Slate's Farhad Manjoo .

Mr. Madrigal penned two relatively short blog posts this week looking at the human toll of the kind of technological change that impacts how we communicate. Mr. Madrigal reacted to Facebook's new Timeline feature, a "saleable database of the people, places and things you love," with ambivalence:

I can't decide if I find this insidious or thrilling.

Thrilling because Timeline offers the possibility of discovering some past selves that I've shed or forgotten. Perhaps I can reintegrate them into my sense of self. Insidious because I feel robbed of the ability to write my autobiography with words.

Facebook's version of autobiography is very specific. It is data-driven. It is simple: Alexis likes the iPad. Alexis eats a hamburger. Alexis reads The Innovator's Cookbook. It is a ranked, chronological database of a life. It is technically complex but grammatically simple. It is multimedia, but not rich. It is autobiography without aesthetic effort. It is a story without words.

His more personal post talks about early experiences with proto-social networks like gaming communities and BBSs, concluding:

Looking at the desolation that is Friendster or MySpace, I wonder how it's possible that digital objects can end up looking like ruins. But they do. Perhaps more interesting questions than "Will Facebook fade out like MySpace?" are "What would the ruins of Facebook look like? What would we put on its tombstone?"

Mr. Manjoo comes at the Facebook changes from a different direction. He sees Mark Zuckerberg's notion of "frictionless sharing" as problematic from the perspective of taste. As in, Facebook is killing it with moves like allowing whatever you play on Spotify to be broadcast in your newsfeed. When you play, say, a Chumbawumba song, you don't necessarily like it or recommend it:

For as much as he's invested in sharing, though, Zuckerberg seems clueless about the motivation behind the act. Why do you share a story, video or photo? Because you want your friends to see it. And why do you want your friends to see it? Because you think they'll get a kick out of it. I know this sounds obvious, but it's somehow eluded Zuckerberg that sharing is fundamentally about choosing. You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn't worth mentioning.

Now Zuckerberg wants to lower the bar.

The New York Times' A.G. Sulzberger had a great article on Topix, a local news aggregator now moonlighting as a place for libelous gossip-mongering in small-town America:

In Hyden, Ky. (population 365), the local forum had 107 visitors at the same time one afternoon this month. They encountered posts about the school system, a new restaurant and local arrests, as well as the news articles and political questions posted by Topix.

But more typical were the unsubstantiated posts that identified by name an employee at a dentist's office as a home wrecker with herpes, accused a gas station attendant of being a drug dealer, and said a 13-year-old girl was "preggo by her mommy's man." Many allegations were followed with promises of retribution to whoever started the post.

"If names had been put on and tied to what has been said, there would have been one killing after another," said Lonnie Hendrix, Hyden's mayor.

Scientists recently determined that hardcore gamers get so immersed in their play that elements of the game seep into real life, a version of what the novelist William Gibson called "everting." Writing on the blog The Last Word on Nothing, Sally Adee talks about her own experience with the phenomenon:

Between 2009 and 2010 I spent a disastrous amount of time playing Mario KartWii. I'd come home at night, grab dinner and then sit obsessively for several hours clutching a little white plastic steering wheel. I'm not proud of this, but it's necessary back story to explain why, one weekend as I was driving to New Jersey and some Jersey driver was swerving and lane-straddling in front of me on the George Washington Bridge, I instinctively reached down on the steering wheel for the button that , in Mario Kart, would send a red shell flying out in front of me to flip this asshole's car off the road.

I was mostly just amused by the episode until later that same drive, when a Nissan Altima's relentless tailgating prompted me to reach for a banana peel to throw behind me. At that point I started to get a little worried.

Business Insider raised another $7 million in venture funding, news that ruffled a few feathers, not least those of Instapaper creator Marco Arment, whose blog posts are often aggregated on the site without his approval. Mr. Arment throws a bit of acid in summing up his feelings.

Why wouldn't I want to be associated with Business Insider? It has nearly everything that offends me as a web reader and writer: linkbait headlines, more ads than content, more sharing buttons than original words, top-list "slideshows" that make readers click for every item and defraud advertisers into thinking that their pageviews are legitimate, Tynt messing with copy and paste, Vibrant Media's double-green-underline ads, generic images slapped next to each post (often poorly Photoshopped(r)), and tabloid coverage of every rumor and inflammatory non-event so they can fight all of the other tabloids for Google's pennies.

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