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Trying to Remain Faceless on Facebook

So I joined Facebook this week - not because I had a deep and burning desire to do so, but because we've created a youdecide2007 Facebook group as part of the support network for our citizen journalism Website for the upcoming Australian federal election. Since joining, I've received a good dozen of friends requests from friends and colleagues; people have left messages on my wall; I've been invited to events - all of which are pretty regular occurrences on the site, I guess. (The same keeps happening with my LinkedIn account, which I haven't even logged on to for months - apologies for those who've sent me messages wanting to make contact on that site.)

The thing is, though - I still feel deeply ambivalent about Facebook. I need to be on there for research reasons, which means I need to create an account for myself, but at the same time, frankly, I'm just not that interested in actively using that account for my own professional and personal networking. I'm already embedded in what I think are pretty good online and offline social networks (online using a variety of other technologies from email to blogs), and I don't feel a particularly strong urge to recreate them in yet another sociotechnical environment. Other friends and colleagues may feel differently about this, and that's fine, of course; at the same time, this may easily lead to a fragmentation rather than strengthening of social ties in my circle of personal relationships, and I assume that's true more broadly, too.

There is a certain sense of peer pressure here, at least indirectly - not to participate means to lose out on potentially interesting and useful social and professional opportunities, and not to respond to friending requests and group invitations might seem rude; but to use Facebook is to direct a great deal of ongoing effort towards what is in essence a process of maintaining personal and network data, just because the underlying framework and technology of the site requires this. Time spent here is also time lost for other activities - if, for example, Facebook (as well as Twitter and other such sites) is to blame for the slowdown in updates to the blogs a number of my colleagues, for example, then that would be a real shame.

That said, on a theoretical level, I understand the appeal of Facebook, of course (even if in practice I don't feel the appeal myself) - it's a tool for what in my upcoming book I'll describe as the produsage of sociality:

here, the more or less overt evaluation of peers by peers in the community becomes a core practice, as does the evaluation of peer-contributed content as an indirect means of evaluating peers themselves. A number of key spaces for this produsage of sociality have emerged to public attention in the past years, ranging from Friendster through MySpace to Facebook, from Cyworld to Orkut, as well as to more professionally focused social networking sites like LinkedIn or Ecademy. Additionally, of course, we have already highlighted the strong social aspects of sites like Flickr or YouTube and of spaces like EverQuest and Second Life, and there are significant groups of participants on such sites which use them not predominantly for the purposes of sharing content or playing games, but mainly for building and maintaining social relationships and networks.

So I'm trying to pinpoint the source of my (surprisingly strong) unease about Facebook and similar sites. Perhaps I'm just sad that, frankly, I don't feel the excitement, when many of my friends and colleagues clearly do. But perhaps there's something else, too - what Facebook also represents is the (at least temporary) recentralisation of social networking under a corporate roof, when what blogs had achieved, for example, was a strong decentralisation and diffusion of personal publishing, interaction, debate, and deliberation:

the decentralized network of the wider blogosphere also enables a form of distributed social networking which is maintained through interlinkage and cross-commenting between individual bloggers, highlighting the conversational rather than publicational aspects of blogging.

Compared to my blog, compared to my friends' blogs, Facebook seems awfully restrictive, even in spite of all the content blocks and gadgets I can plaster all over my profile there. I think I'm coming to resent the idea that my social networks, my social interactions, my sociality are reduced to a set of predefined boxes containing my Facebook 'friends', 'groups', and 'networks'; that my friends are reduced to scrawling messages on my 'wall' in order to communicate with me (if indeed I do take the trouble to log on and check the writing on the wall...). And I on theirs, and so on. Seems awfully standardised, formulaic, impersonal.

Is it just me; am I losing touch with Web2.0 developments? Is Facebook simply one social networking site too far for what I can cope with? Or is there hope, and is this just a temporary recentralisation of online social interaction before the inevitable decentralisation which follows, much in the same way that the early centralised leaders Blogger and LiveJournal were ultimately joined by a vast range of alternative blog hosts, and (more importantly) by a multitude of bloggers 'rolling their own', installing Wordpress and Drupal and all manner of other Websites on their own servers? Will people once again break out of the corporate enclosure, and create their own more diffused social networks by enhancing blogs and other stand-alone sites with add-ons that even in this decentralised form still enable the kind of friending and grouping possible in Facebook and MySpace?

Answers on a postcard, or rather, in a comment to this post, please. You could post them on my 'wall' in Facebook, too, but I may not see them any time soon...

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axel, thanks for this - really good points, and all of this has occurred to me too.

Couple of things: Facebook is populated by a wide range of people in my pre-existing social networks who are not what I would think of as 'internet' people. They wouldn't have blogs, ever, or update wikipedia, or have flickr accounts, or whatever - they're on facebook because of the way that 'social network markets' work, if you'll forgive me. I have similar concerns about the 'lockdown' that is associated with a monolithic proprietary platform, though.

To take up your other hint, I'm not sure why I'm not blogging much right now, other than feeling that every sensible word I write should be in an RQF-able 'output' somewhere, and feeling under so much pressure work-wise that long-form prose seems like an enormous effort, and also the fact that my blog was a fieldwork diary for my PhD most of the time, and now that's over. And perhaps, to be honest, my imagined audience for the blog is not so different from my facebook or twitter network - so that a lot of what I used to blog about: personal, everyday stuff intermingled with a few research ideas - happens in a more piecemeal and distributed fashion across a variety of internet media now. So that I'm personally re-evaluating the purpose of 'scholarly' blogging - it's a reflective hiatus more than a stoppage, though. I think. Anyway, thanks for posting this, so I don't have to!

Thanks, Jean - and yes, your blog is one I had in mind when I mentioned the slowdown in blogging; I miss your updates from the vernacular machine. (Incidentally, the current RQF categories do include 'new media outputs', and I think it's important for us researcher-bloggers to claim some of our blogging as an RQFable output of quality and impact...) Interesting that both you and Mel also mention Twitter as affecting your blogging practice, and for me that's a real concern, too. Personally, I can't stand Twitter(ing), but perhaps that's just me - more importantly, I think it has a markedly negative effect on the quality of many forms of blogging, as it leads people to publish brief updates rather than considered posts. In effect, overall, Twitter has impacted on blogging in much the same way that 24-hour news channels impacted on journalism: more of the live, the on-the-go, the breathless now, and less of the thought-through, the well-formed, the blogger's voice.

That said, I get your point about Facebook as a kind of entry drug to social networking on other, more flexible, more personable, personalised, personalisable formats. Henry Jenkins has talked about MySpace as being 'so 20 minutes ago' (below), and I think he's right; let's hope that Facebook's 20 minutes are about up soon, too.

I dunno that twitter makes people post brief updates - I mean, I post brief updates to twitter where previously I would post them to my blog. I think it's better to do that on twitter or in a semi-private space like facebook, rather than kludging up your blog with personal updates. I really only read blogs via my rss reader, so I don't really notice when people stop updating for a while - but I do notice when they start posting crud just to keep up appearances. Better that people keep the personal stuff for facebook and only post quality stuff on their blogs.

Wonderful post Axel! And you might be happy to know that I found out about it not through a feed or a wall post or a tweet, but from an actual face to face conversation from someone we both know! When I have posted about FB on my blog lately, I've also tried to express what might be making the bloggers amongst us uncomfortable about it. I agree with you that in entering that space we lose so many of the distinctive features we may value in blogging - especially the time and the luxury of expressing a thought in our own space and on our own terms (to some extent). I note that it has prompted you to be a bit more reflective and personal than you might normally be in a blog post (or am I imagining that?). Anyway, it also proves for me another thing about blogging, that it isn't so much about careerism or self-promotion for many of us (although we are charged of that regularly) but about writing as a pleasure, as a desire for connection, as an art form or maybe even a tiny politics. By identifying the limitations and the standardisation at the heart of FB, you've drawn those things out for me really clearly. Along the way, you've also expressed really clearly my theory about "compulsory friendship" as it manifests at the interface between online culture and the neoliberal workplace.

I'm hoping that another legacy of the FB moment will be a resurgence in and revitalisation of blogging precisely because it will make us more aware of its unique affordances. But isn't it ironic that just as we are fretting that blogging might be becoming passe, the Australian newspaper hitches on to the academic blogging bandwagon. Someone's seen a chance for some free labour and content, if you ask me: how opportunistic to exploit the very same precarious workers they are so heroically depicting on their front page...

Thanks, Mel - and I hadn't seen your posts about Facebook before I wrote this. Glad I'm not the only one with mixed feelings about the site - and the idea of 'compulsory friendship' on these sites is very useful (in relation to the workplace as you use it, I wonder how this plays out in different cultural contexts which may be more or less strongly inclined towards at-work social bonding...).

You're right that my post about Facebook is probably a little more personal than much of what I've written recently - in part, this is simply a sign of how little considered, reflective blogging I seem to have time for at the moment, beyond posting some news updates on occasion. On the other hand, I must admit I'm surprised myself at the considerable feeling of unease and - more to the point - palpable sadness I find myself experiencing whenever I log into Facebook.

I can't fully pinpoint the reasons for this sensation (and perhaps I'm simply chronically tired and overworked at the moment); I'm guessing it's to do with the fact that personal spaces on Facebook are so incredibly bland and formulaic, and that the forms of interaction on the site are so very very pre-defined. For all the AJAX goodness built into the site, the end result seems like such a pale shadow of what interactive, intercreative, produsage engagement between users Web 2.0 technologies are really capable of supporting. Ultimately, it seems such a frustratingly safe space, with all cutting edges removed; I just don't see that it would inspire its users to explore their further potential for participation and collaboration (as I think is important and necessary for the future).

As for the Australian's appeal for higher ed bloggers: given their remarkable editorial diatribe against "all of the academic PhD aspirants and armchair journalists" blogging in Australia today, this embrace of bloggers by a different section of the paper is astonishing. One can only hope Dennis Shanahan is too busy necromancing the Coalition's opinion poll results at the moment; if he noticed, his head might explode...

I suppose it's ironic that your discussion about Facebook has led me to make my first post to your blog, Snurb. (I have the privilege of talking to you face to face, though.) I am no longer a blogger (so you should probably remove the link to the right there), and have no significant academic interest in the issues you discuss. Perhaps your blog is not the forum for what I want to say, then. But I will say it anyway.

Jean makes an important point when she suggests that Facebook appeals to people who may never blog. Apart from you and Mel, I have no friends who are bloggers. And the format of blogging, though I understand why it appeals to you and your readers, is so different to Facebook and Twitter that I don't think the comparison is all that useful.

I'm not really sure what you mean about the "evaluation of peers by peers". They're not peers (what a colourless word), they're my friends; they're my lovely, wonderful friends, and Facebook is great for one reason: it allows me to get a sense of the shape of their days.

I don't necessarily want extensive, thoughtful blogging about what my friends think about "issues". I'd rather they just told me in person, over drinks and dinner. What I can't easily get from my friends (for various reasons, including the fact that some live far away) is a sense of how their days unfold, and what they are doing then and there. This is something that blogging fails to do. The restrictive nature of the status update on Facebook, the way in which the user is forced to write in present tense, is actually one of its most interesting features to me. How do my friends parcel out their days, and what's making them happy right now?

Often, small details are the most telling. Don't slight the slight: it may be more than you think it is.