“Hell is other people” says Sartre. If that is so, then Facebook is a glimpse into hell. I’ve had a rocky relationship with FB (“it’s complicated”); after leaving Facebook for almost two years and then coming back, I have been very self-conscious about my use of the social network, and have been paying a lot of attention to its strengths and weaknesses. Facebook’s success is easy to explain, it began as something cool, a social club with limited admission where college kids could hang out. However, its success has been its prevalence amongst some circles, not being on Facebook is now the exception, not the norm in many places, particularly in that global segment that is the urban professional middle class wired population of the world. This almost ubiquity has made Facebook incredibly popular, but also means that the site is now part of the establishment. Let’s face it, Facebook is no longer cool, not even remotely. This may sound shallow, but coolness factor is an important determination as to whether Facebook will continue to dominate the social media landscape.
I was very worried about coming back to Facebook. The place had changed considerably since I had left. Undoubtedly, there were more people in it, with large swathes of old schoolmates and former college classmates. I was surprised to see that my network had remained almost intact, meaning that most of the people who had friended me earlier on were still there. After some years cultivating an online persona through this blog and Twitter, it was both scary and refreshing to be “me” once more. The problem of course was that I could not really be myself in this online environment. Firstly, there was the tricky issue of language, as my network was almost split halfway between anglophones and Spanish speakers. Then there was the fact that I still had lots of people in my lists that were not really friends. So I decided to cull some people that I did not even remember where I knew them from, and was also more careful about accepting invitations. Even then my friend list reached the unwieldy number of just over 400 people.
Moreover, it has become clear that Facebook annoys me greatly. With Twitter things are easy, if someone annoys you, just unfollow. With Facebook, there is always the option to unfriend someone, but there are tricky social conventions to navigate. There are people who I really like in real life, but whose FB presence ranges from mildly irritating to totally infuriating. The Cityville notifications, the mindless platitudes (which by the way are “Liked” by dozens), the endless displays of HOYGAN, the over-sharing (no naked torsos please), the baby pictures, the religious talk. I’m sure my own interaction is similarly annoying to some (the football talk, the geeky videos, the links to boring technology articles… but I digress). It is possible to filter the annoying people and leave only those you are truly interested in, but I have always thought of that option as a cop-out, as it begs the question of why are you “friends” with those people in the first place. And even bothersome people may say something interesting from time to time.
The one thing I really like about Facebook is the Like button (unlike this opinion in the WSJ), I wish I could like more things in real life.
All of these issues with Facebook leads me to believe that Google’s new foray into the social media sphere has a lot of potential. I joined Google+ yesterday, and I am already in love with the concept of Circles, where you can share things with only a circle of friends who you know will be interested in what you have to say about a topic. While I am just starting to grow my network, I can already see the benefit of separating people according to interests (some of my circles at the moment look a lot like my LinkedIn network).
I do not pretend to claim that my own personal experience with Facebook should be typical of the entire network, I must admit that I get a small sense of joy at being an atypical user. However, it seems clear that FB is reaching a saturation point, and dare I say, even a bit of fatigue. It seems like there are lots of people in my friends list who are not using the tool at all (or probably have blocked me), but the number of people you usually manage to interact with in FB is low. Google+ will not challenge FB completely, but for the foreseeable future, it will offer a new place where people who are fed up with Facebook can hang out.
So come out and play, the water is warm. You can always put me in the circle of irritating anthropomorphic bloggers.