Facebook — IRC in fancier clothes

By IRC, I am referring to Internet Relay Chat. If you follow that link to Wikipedia, you’ll see that IRC has had some important milestones during the years of its existence, such as being used to report on the 1991 coup attempt in the Soviet Union.

But IRC has always been notorious as being a massive (and largely useless) timesink.

There were a couple times I checked it out in college, and logged back out in a couple minutes each time. IRC is one massive chat room (although Wikipedia says there it is possible to create private channels) and if you don’t pay very close attention the entire time you’re on, you’ll lose the thread of the conversation.

But let’s be honest, a lot of the conversations there weren’t real conversations. It was one person making a statement and whole bunch of other people adding short little notes — sometimes witty, sometimes offensive, sometimes supportive — and other people posting replies to the first replies and the initial poster and repliers replying to the replies.

Which is a good way to describe Facebook, repliers replying to previous replies. And the occasional original post.

And in all fairness, you can post longer notes on Facebook. But you’ll have to hunt like heck in the user interface to figure out how to do it. And it is possible to post photo albums on Facebook too. But that’s also a pain in the neck and even less intuitive than it is on MySpace. You can send private messages via Facebook. But if I’m doing that, I’d rather use e-mail in the first place. (Or maybe even — shocking and archaic as this is — the phone!) There are some games on Facebook that are fun to play, such as Mafia Wars. And some that are boring as hell, like Farmtown. But if I’m sitting on my ass in front of the computer playing games, I’d rather be playing something like World of Warcraft.

And even more than MySpace, almost as much as IRC, Facebook makes it easy to interact less while convincing yourself you’re interacting more.

Here’s an example: there’s an author whose books I enjoy reading. I’ll call him M. M has both a Facebook account and a MySpace account. He used to post some very interesting (and occasionally very long) blogs on MySpace. Blogs on some really in-depth topics, like differences in how men and women think, how the media can manipulate how you view events, how to recognize and deal with violence, how to accurately depict violent altercations and violent people in fiction, and also how to accurately depict alpha males in fiction and the various arguments about whether alpha males even exist and how to spot them.

From these blogs, you could start to get an idea of who M is. What interests him, what upsets him, what he thinks is important and he wishes people would talk about more, and what he wishes people would quit talking about so much.

And in some cases, I left some pretty long replies to some of his blog posts, from which M could start to gather some of the same information about me.

So when I signed up for a seminar M was teaching and a mutual friend told M that I was signed up, M said yes he knew who I was and was happy to meet me in person since I replied to his blogs frequently.

Can you get any of this depth of information from one- or two-sentence posts and replies on Facebook? (Or three sentences if you’re wordy and a fast typer like me, but you’ll frequently run out of space on the Facebook posts and replies even within three sentences.)

No, you cannot.

You can convince yourself “I’m keeping in touch“.

But YOU’RE NOT.

Which is one of the things I’ve noticed about myself and other friends who were on Facebook — the more we were all replying and replying to replies, the less we were actually communicating. The less e-mails I saw from them, the less posts anywhere else like MySpace, and the more the Facebook posts were just — existential. For lack of a better term.

“It’s really hot.” “I saw a really good movie.” “We planted trees today.” “I’m bored.”

Yes, I am interested in what my friends are doing, how their lives are going, and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. But I also want to know them beyond the day-to-day minutiae. Why do they do what they do, what hobbies do they have and how are those going, how’s their job going and do they want to stay in that job or one day do something different — that’s what makes a friendship that can last.

It’s like a lot of my co-workers in my last job. To shorten and summarize a separate rant — friendship depends on more than just acknowledging someone exists once every week or two.

Which brings up another topic I find baffling about Facebook — people who send me a friend request but who don’t know me that well and haven’t talked to me in over ten years and who don’t ever reply to any post I put up, although they’re posting pretty frequently so I know they’re online. What was the point of that? (I will admit I have some friends on Facebook I don’t know hardly at all, some of use were trying to boost our mob counts in the game Mafia Wars and someone has to be on your friends list before you can add them to your mob.)

So were they just trying to boost their number of friends on their friends list?

I saw a really great article about Facebook users adding friends just to up their friends count — “Confessions of a Facebook Addict“, by Hugh Delehanty in the July 8th issue of AARP the Magazine. Here’s a quote from that article:

Barbara was unimpressed. “You know what you are?” she said the next day out by the pool when I excitedly told her the news. “You’re a Facebook slut. Why don’t you ever have a real conversation with a real person?

“Someone like me, for instance.”

In case you were wondering, the Barbara in that quote is Delehanty’s wife.

Which brings us back to the comparison with IRC — a way to avoid real conversations with real person.

And to clarify, these are all my own personal opinions. I think each person’s decisions are theirs to make. For those people who like Facebook, and who can make or sustain real and meaningful connections with other people via Facebook, that’s great. I’m just not one of them.

And I’ve seen some people who very effectively use Facebook to promote and keep people up to date on merchandise they sell or articles they write. Randy Cassingham, who sells Get Out of Hell Free cards and who also writes the This is True column, does an excellent job using Facebook to keep people up to date about his columns and merchandise. And he also does a good job providing ways and reasons for a Facebook user to follow a link to one of his regular non-Facebook sites.

If I ever start trying to build a web presence, such are regularly blogging, or trying to establish a company that sells items mainly via the web, I’ll probably follow Cassingham’s example.

But in my opinion, Facebook on a personal level is like being at a really crowded cocktail party, in a really small room, and the clothing’s all the same, so the only way to make yourself stand out is to talk a lot in short bursts — and hopefully you don’t mind that everyone in the room can hear everything you say.

Heck, at least with MySpace I can set the background and font you see when you look at my page.

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