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Wednesday, 8 August 2007

It's been 18 days in the latest incarnation of the digital village and I think it's time for a Facebook reality check. Since 21 July, when I joined, I've joined six groups, have nine friends, and am content with the version of myself visible in my profile.

Getting the last right took a week or so. The first attempt was too trite, a label easy to fall under given the herd mentality and the standard features available. I decided finally to remove the 'sex', 'interested in', 'relationship status' and 'looking for' bits. I'm an ex-husband and the picture clearly shows I'm male, so give me a break. The rest is just silly. No-one's going to send passionate emails just from seeing this data.

I figured that any such approach would be inspired by my online persona. By what I write, in other words. All the other junk developed for Facebook by the seeming legions of eager geeks (stuff you never saw in the Bible) has been given a wide berth.

On joining, I used an 'invite' feature that crawls through your email accounts, displays a list of potential 'friends' and sends an invite to those you choose to invite. Five people I already know accepted and it's educational to note that I met all of these people online. Apart from one encountered originally via LibraryThing, they're all blog buddies.

One group I'm now a member of is a "closed group", meaning that members must be "invited or approved by an admin". The group is vocational and associated with my place of work. Approval was granted and I've since posted on their 'wall'. A 'wall' is an unthreaded text-capture feature. There is also the 'discussion board' which, in the tradition of the Internet, is threaded.

There seems to be no real difference between the two, only that the 'wall' is more ephemeral and not topic-based. Opening a topic on the 'discussion board' flags a greater commitment to the theme raised and opened for comments from other group members. There's less commitment on the 'wall'.

One 'friend' is a publishing house based in Minnesota but I've never read any of their books. I assume they sent the friend invite due to my blog, which has been heavily literature-oriented, by design, since its inception in January 2006.

Another group is not vocational but refers to my interest in creative writing (is journalism this?). A nice feature is that people can send out notices that go to your email inbox, with a single action. A one-to-many scenario that could easily be exploited for work purposes.

In the end, however, the overall tenor of Facebook, like most of the Internet, is that the herd instinct is powerful and thus content tends to the conciliatory, ephemeral, screwball, bum-sniffing kind that I detest. Threads that promise something more substantial -- a real opportunity to express ideas within earshot (eyeshot?) of similarly sophisticated surfers -- can die in the bum if the tone is serious.

My blog currently attracts about 50 hits daily. Meagre in the eyes of marketers, it's true. But I know there's a small group of regular visitors who enjoy reading what I post. Similarly, I visit perhaps a couple of dozen blogs regularly. The reality is that most of what's available online is pure crap.

Facebook can deliver better outcomes but this will depend on how it's used, the people you associate with, and the motivation they have to read what you write. Without that motivation, verbal commerce in this online "aggregator" and social space will remain ephemeral and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

The ability for third-party developers to add applications to the list of what's available is also attractive. For example, I added an app that imports my blog posts. Sometimes it works instantly but often you wait for hours before the post appears in Facebook. There's also an app that posts LibraryThing additions on your profile page. There's potential for better integration and I've told the developer about it.

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