Facebook’s populism versus the online intelligentsia

30 May

There’s been a lot written about Facebook lately, what with its big initial public offering and everything, and the overwhelming majority of it has been negative. Even my own post running up to the IPO focused on all the bad things that have dogged the site during its crazy climb over the past few years, from users’ privacy concerns to advertisers’ doubts about the site’s usefulness.

My Macleans‘ comrade Jesse Brown also wrote a post last week in which he proclaimed that Facebook’s stock has never been lower (for him). He’s just not getting much use out of the site anymore, if he ever did, a sentiment shared by many.

Yet, when faced with so much negativity, I can’t help but start to feel contrarian. In the case of Facebook, if everyone hates it so much, how has it grown to nearly a billion users? And how did it become the most anticipated IPO since Google?

The answer, I think, is that like all things online, Facebook is at the center of its own negativity echo chamber. And in the website’s case, it’s a rather odd one.

The reality is this: despite what we so-called technology pundits may think and often write, the vast majority of Facebook’s 900-million-plus users probably really like using the site. For every curmudgeon like me or Jesse who is on it begrudgingly, there are a couple of dozen (or hundreds) of people who love it and are constantly on it. Indeed, that’s what the numbers show – people spend more time on Facebook than any other website, by far.

Why? It’s simple. Literally. Facebook is almost like an introductory form of the internet, a one-stop shop where many users get everything they need. They can keep in touch with friends, look at photos of their vacations, read news stories they suggest, play time-wasting games, invite people to their parties, and speak and be heard. For many, there isn’t much need to venture out into the wild untamed frontier that is the larger internet. Maybe they will some day, but for now, Facebook will do.

I suspect the supposed online intelligentsia often forgets this, or resents it. We don’t think it’s right for people to play in a walled garden controlled by what is now a monolithic, publicly owned company that has dubious designs on our personal data.

Getting right down to it, we think we’re better than Facebook – or at least that the internet should be better than Facebook.

Yet when we surround ourselves with like-minded people or only hear similar complaints, it’s hard to ever consider the other side. It’s an echo chamber that prevents us from ever thinking that, hey, what if Facebook really is, y’know, awesome?

When I think about it objectively, the site may in fact be more useful to me than it’s ever been. Jesse complains that his news feed is clogged up with people he doesn’t know or companies he doesn’t remember “liking,” yet such things are easily hidden so only that which you want to see remains. As for privacy, I’ve always subscribed to the thinking that if there’s a secret you really don’t want the world to know, don’t ever tell it to anyone. That goes double for the internet and triple for Facebook.

I love Twitter because the people I follow are always pointing to interesting things. The advantage to using Facebook to accomplish the same thing is that I’m more likely to have something in common with the people doing the sharing (at least I am, since I haven’t “friended” a ton of strangers.) While I may find more things on Twitter that are important to me on a professional level, on Facebook I’m constantly discovering stuff that’s of personal interest. It’s where I indulge my comic book fetish, for example.

Maybe Facebook will some day change so that it’s more accepted by the techno-elite. I doubt it – the echo chamber probably can’t be silenced at this point. We’ll just have to accept that no technology firm – much less no internet company – has ever ruled the world for long. Perhaps whatever comes along next won’t be quite so populist and a little more friendly to the intelligentsia. But we’ll still probably write negative things about it.


Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Facebook


3 responses to “Facebook’s populism versus the online intelligentsia

  1. Marc Venot

    May 30, 2012 at 3:07 am

    You know that the buzz is the purchase by Facebook of Opera (browser) and RIM. Which means a large vertical integration, thus reinforcing the cruse mentality of its users. The question is prolly how Apple, Microsoft, Google and maybe China can propose to challenge it?

  2. Seppo

    May 30, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Sound, valid comment.

    But the real question is how will FB actually make money to justify the IPO price, since ads do not work in FB well, and more of them will drive people away? My pie-in-the-sky proposal is statistical analysis of deep data for the purposes of product development, aka Bell Labs 2 🙂
    “Facebook’s Business Model, Beyond Ads To A New Deep Data Warehouse For The 21st Century”

  3. Parallax Abstraction

    May 30, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Given how their stock has continued to tank, I’m wondering how much confidence the market has as well.

    You make a lot of good points here Peter and I do think to a point that there is a lot of Facebook hate in the echo chamber (I can’t stand the company and what they’ve done to the concept of privacy myself and haven’t been a member since 2010) but there’s two key points of fuzzy information here that really prevent us from knowing the true answer.

    1. Facebook says they have almost a billion users but are very careful to not say in what capacity. I guarantee you that stat is the total number of users who are registered, not people who are actively using the site in any capacity. MMO game developers have played this same tactic many times. Given that it’s almost impossible to permanently remove an account from the site, that stat becomes useless. If they have 900MM users and only half of them are actively contributing data to their accounts (not saying this is right, it’s just a random number), then suddenly that stat becomes much less useful because only people sharing data publicly on the site has value for them.
    2. This is purely anecdotal but I know a lot of co-workers and friends who have Facebook accounts but have largely stopped using the site. They login sometimes to play a game or to respond to a message here and there but these are people who used to spend every waking minute on Facebook and now use it only once in a while. I think this is becoming more and more common. People aren’t “done” with Facebook but the honeymoon phase is over and many people are beginning to realise that the site can take up a frankly obscene amount of your time if you let it and their use is tapering off as a result. Again, people not pumping data into the site reduces its value greatly.

    I think a lot of the hate is overhyped (though privacy concerns are very valid in my opinion) but I do think Facebook is becoming less of a daily activity for many people and that is going to hurt them. The market seems to think so also, well that combined with how the company apparently lied to a bunch of investors, something else which doesn’t surprise me.

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