Don't Believe Everything You Read -- Like That There's a Facebook Exodus
Excuse me for being a little behind, as it happens, the Times, but I just got back from Ireland to discover that that very newspaper has decided it's time to kill Facebook, just because -- from what I can tell -- it's good to be out in front of trends and be the first to the funeral .
What's particularly disturbing about the story I'm writing about, by Virginia Heffernan, is not even the speciousness of its opening assertion: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. More articles about Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you'll find quitters." No; the most disturbing thing about the story is its hold on the popular imagination.
Published eight days ago, around when the family was leaving the Dingle Peninsula for The Burren, it is still the third most emailed story in the entire paper. While I'd like to think it's being emailed around so that people can point out its irresponsibility, I doubt that's the case. Instead, people will use Heffernan's talk of an "exodus" as evidence that Facebook is over, and, so, like lemmings, they may find that people leave for something else.
I suppose I should go into more detail about Heffernan's piece before continuing, so here are a few choice sound bites:
"An early faction lost faith in 2008, when Facebook's beloved Scrabble application, Scrabulous, was pulled amid copyright issues. It was suddenly clear that Facebook was not just a social club but also an expanding force on the Web, beholden to corporate interests.
"My friend Alex joined four years ago at the suggestion of 'the coolest guy on the planet,' she told me in an e-mail message. For a while, they cultivated a cool-planet online gang. But then Scrabulous was shut down, someone told her she was too old for Facebook, her teenage stepson seemed to be losing his life to it and she found the whole site crawling with mercenaries trying to sell books and movies."
"Another friend ... found that Facebook undermined his whole notion of online friendship.
"Many seem to have just lost their appetite for it: they just stopped wanting to look at other people's photos and résumés and updates, or have their own subject to scrutiny."
Um, OK, so a few people Heffernan knows have gravitated away from Facebook; maybe they also tired of eating Chinese takeout or watching "Heroes." But do these examples constitute an "exodus"? Not even close. According to statistics in Heffernan's own story, Facebook had 87.7 million unique users in July. But even that eye-popping statistic is misleading. What she neglects to say is that the site has actually grown by 30% in domestic uniques, since April of this year. That growth statistic alone, if her editor had gotten a look at it, would have altered the story, if not killed it entirely. So some people don't like Facebook. Big freakin' deal.
What's at work here, both on the part of Heffernan, and all of those people manically emailing the story to their Facebook friends, is point #5 of the column I wrote last week about what I dislike about social media:
"That many of us are hopeless slaves to social networking fashion, flitting from one hot service to another, like Carrie Bradshaw always on the hunt for a new pair of Manolos."
As a journalist, Heffernan wants to be the first to declare Facebook over, but obviously, she's jumped the gun. While most people who read this column know this, the problem, in these viral times, is that now that the gun has gone off others are now running with it, making her claims of a Facebook exodus potentially self-fulfilling.
But there's another trap that Heffernan falls into, and it's something that even the most social-networking-savvy among us occasionally falls into: we confuse how we use platforms with the platforms themselves. Basically all communications mediums -- from the spoken word to the book to the telephone to Twitter -- are platforms, and the platforms themselves, though they operate in different ways, are merely conduits.
It's wonderful that you can use a telephone to keep in touch with your ailing grandmother; the fact that it can also be used to make obscene phone calls doesn't make the telephone bad. On Facebook, you can have the extremely wonderful experience of reconnecting with people you regretted losing touch with, or you can use it to stalk people. Because that make some people understandably uncomfortable with Facebook, it doesn't mean it's worthy of a mass exodus. It's merely a platform that appeals to millions of people, but isn't right for everyone.
It's time for Heffernan, and the rest of us, to start to know better.