Llew Claasen
Llew Claasen

What is the meaning of Facebook?

There comes a time in a man’s life when biting another Zombie chump, waiting four days for your growing gift to turn into a money tree or refreshing the page so that you get status updates in your news feed doesn’t get you excited any more. It’s depressing to be so bored with Facebook that not even joining the group “Why do I check my Facebook every 10 minutes and expect something new??” can reinvigorate you.

It happened to me last week when I came to the conclusion that the structure of Facebook is wrong. I’m bored with it, and I’m trying to compensate by collecting celebrity friends like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il so that the fad doesn’t lose its charm.

On Facebook, people can join one geographical, one school and one company network. I only belong to one arbitrary network on Facebook — South Africa. In my real life I belong to any number of networks, including career, friendship, activity or interest-group networks. Some people that I know are members of more than one of my real-life networks — for example, some of my business associates are also my friends. Unfortunately, very few of my friends want to receive my latest del.icio.us bookmark updates or my latest technology blog post in their news feeds, so not all my friends like to feel as if they’re my business associates. My real-life social networks are not as neatly arranged as Facebook would suggest and the people that make up all my social networks don’t like playing together in the same sandpit.

Now I have tried to get everyone in my real-life networks to play nicely by separating them from each other on Facebook. I’ve decided that I’m only prepared to accept Facebook friend requests from people with whom:

  • I’ve had at least two lengthy and entertaining conversations about politics, sex, religion or how bad our cricket team is when it counts;
  • I’ve had too many social drinks and they have blackmail pictures to prove it; or
  • I can recall what it was like to be part of Hudson Park High class of 1996.
  • Everyone who doesn’t meet these criteria gets a friend-request “ignore”. Sometimes I’ll bump into them in a Facebook group or a mutual friend’s profile page where we can views each other’s posts on the wall, but that’s probably it. I do this so that my Facebook interactions with my accepted friends are authentic and I don’t have to concern myself with pictures, status updates or wall posts being misunderstood by my work colleagues or business associates when these are published in a news feed. The downside is that I lose out on rich interaction with everyone that does not fit the criteria for my “friend” social network.

    Why does Facebook insist on pooling everyone in all my social networks together? Why can’t I have other separate social networks on Facebook for people with whom I share a love of cycling or people in the web technology industries with whom I want to share ideas or network? I want to be able to share a news feed and a wall and sticky cycling widgets with people complaining about their training progress for the Argus or deciding on 105 vs Ultegra to go with their new frame, or pics of me doing Die Burger in a banana outfit.

    Similarly, I want to share a news feed, wall and widgets with fellow web geeks where we could share commentary on OpenSocial, post pics of the latest iPhone version or YouTube videos of Android’s user interface. Now that’s real social networking! You could argue that groups serve this purpose on Facebook, but I don’t find them nearly rich enough and usually you join them not because you’re expecting to interact or network, but rather to make a point about yourself to everyone else: “The Chuck Norris Appreciation society” and “Appreciation of the multi-tarented Kim Jong Il group” are two groups of which I am a proud member, but to which I have never bothered to contribute anything.

    The people in my other social networks who don’t share these cycling and web technology social networks with me can’t understand why I get excited about such topics, because this information is only valued in those networks. I don’t post web technology and cycling snippets on my Facebook profile page, because although they occupy most of my mind and my time, I understand that many of my friends don’t value being bombarded by messages from a cycling or web technology addict. Instead, I share what everyone else is likely to find interesting — pictures of my holiday, videos of my dogs, status updates about Phuza Thursday drinks with mates and relatively pointless widgets such as a Virtual Aquarium, Vampires or How Alike Are We?. It’s fun for a while, but it’s meaningless and eventually it gets boring.

    Facebook and MySpace need to understand what purpose they want to serve. Describing Facebook as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you” is simply too broad to be meaningful. If these social networks could position themselves so that we understand what we’re actually trying do when we are there, then we can answer the existential questions over which the great thinkers on Facebook lose sleep, like: “Am I on Facebook because I’m bored, or am I bored because I’m on Facebook?”. Are we trying to interact with musicians, listen to new music and get gig updates (MySpace?) or are we trying to share videos, pictures and the stories of our life with our friends (Facebook)? At the moment, if you’re not trying to do either of those two on these two sites, then you’re lost. Some people swear by LinkedIn for business networking, but I think that it has a static interface that doesn’t beg me to reach for my business card and connect with business associates.

    In an attempt to find a salve for me not being able to get web techie in my Facebook backyard, I have created a social network on Ning especially for web technology and online marketing geeks, called GeekCommons.com. The interface is almost exactly like what you’re accustomed to at Facebook, including news feeds and mini feeds. Anyone can join and create a profile, upload pics, videos, add OpenSocial widgets, add RSS feeds and even blog. Please bring your fresh ideas around the web space and its associated technologies and get your geek on.

    An aside: Some of you in the web technology or online marketing space may be tempted to create your own web technology social network for the bragging rights. If you are one of those people, then please don’t do it and rather brush up on Metcalfe’s Law — no one benefits when there are many small networks. Notice how many small groups there are on Facebook that address the same issue and don’t get to a useful size? I don’t expect to make any money out of it (it’s actually costing me money), so please join the network and bring your web geek friends and business associates with you.