18 Sep 2007 11 am eastern

Facebook Considered Harmless

IN 1995, I RECKONED everyone would teach themselves HTML and start homesteading on the web. When that didn’t happen, I spent three years on a free tutorial I figured would give the world the push it needed. It didn’t.

I was an early blogger and a late user of blogging software because, why did anybody need blogging software? Wrong. Always wrong.

In 2004, some colleagues and I contributed to the “new” Blogger. We were excited by the thought of bringing well-designed, easy-peasy, standards-compliant web publishing tools to millions of people. Now everyone can do this, we thought. And millions did.

But not everyone, it turns out, wants to blog. Blogging is hard. There’s, like, thoughts and stuff that you have to come up with, even if someone else handles the whole “what should my blog be like and what should it do and how should it be organized and what should it look like” part.

No, what most people were really looking for—or at least, what most people have responded to since such things became available—were web gizmos as easy as farting and as addictive as cigarettes. “Social software.” “Web 2.0.” Swimming pools, movie stars.

All this to preface the unremarkable yet strange to those who know me fact that yesterday I signed up for Facebook. And spent several hours messing with it. And checked it this morning before making coffee, before making breakfast for The Wife and I, before bringing The Child her strawberry milk.

Facebook is a walled garden and I am religiously opposed, but here we are and there I am.

Facebook is pretty. It works with Ma.gnolia. It works with Twitter. In theory it works with iLike, except that you can’t add an existing iLike account to Facebook, which is lame and sucks and iLike’s fault, and the fact that I care and am bothering to share such trivia shows how deeply assimilated I have become over the past 24 hours, eight of which I spent sleeping.

As when I joined Twitter, the first thing I noticed was how many of my friends and colleagues were already there ahead of me. Why none of them had invited me to join, bastards, I leave to their consciences, not that I’m bitter. They redeemed themselves by responding within an hour or less when I asked to be their “friends,” not that I’m keeping score.

I don’t need more friends and I don’t need more contacts. I avoided most of the first-generation social software that was all about Rolodex building, and only gave in to the main one everyone knows and which I shall not name when a loved old client of mine invited me to join his network. Since I made that mistake, I get lots more mail, and lots more mail is something else I don’t need.

But I design interfaces so I’m supposed to know about this stuff. That’s the rationale behind my spending hours of billable time adjusting my Facebook preferences. The real reason, of course, for all this stuff, is that it provides a way to blow off work you should be doing, while creating the illusion that you are achieving something. At least in most offices, you can’t masturbate at your desk. But you can Tweet.

[tags]socialsoftware, web2.0, facebook, twitter, flickr, blogs, blogging, community, walledgarden[/tags]

Filed under: Applications, Blogs and Blogging, Community, industry, Tools

68 Responses to “Facebook Considered Harmless”

  1. Nick said on

    The real reason, of course, for all this stuff, is that it provides a way to blow off work you should be doing, while creating the illusion that you are achieving something.

    This is the EXACT reason I deactivated my account just the other day.

  2. beth said on

    Facebook is the one leap into current “social media” I don’t know if I’ll ever break down and take. It’s irksome enough that people won’t use my email and send me MySpace messages instead.

  3. Andrew Mager said on

    I helped bring Facebook to Virginia Tech in 2004, and I have logged in 5 or 6 times a day since. It will only prosper because graduating college students will still use it in the workplace to connect with friends. If I wanna find someone’s email, screen name, or phone number from school, I just check Facebook :) I just friended you.

  4. James Darling said on

    Facebook is the most used semantic web thing so far. It has my non-techy friends realising the wonder of organising their data in a semantic way, without them really knowing about it. It is a shame they have to do it in a proprietary system, but right now, that is the only way it is possible.

  5. Trip Kirkpatrick said on

    One of several partial refutations (or attempts to do same) you’ll receive on this post: Facebook allowed me to reconnect with an old friend from high school. My senior prom date, in fact. We’re not going to become pen pals, but it was a warm fuzzy feeling. Similar thing happened on LinkedIn. So it’s not just a time suck (though it is that, in spades). Your implications are spot-on about blogging being better, of course.

  6. Ricky Irvine said on

    The last two sentences of this article have been perfectly written.

  7. Eric Meyer said on

    Funny that you’re annoyed at the people who haven’t invited you onto Facebook, as I’m (very slightly) annoyed at the people who have invited me.

  8. Chris Harrison said on

    The one thing that I’ve found is that there will always be some other time-killer just around the corner.

  9. Daniel Black said on

    Blogs were bad enough, but at least you couldn’t tweak them (unless you owned it). I mean, damn.

  10. Ara Pehlivanian said on

    Once you’ve connected with everyone from your florist to your old high school buddies (who you were sure couldn’t even find the computer’s on button, let alone join Facebook) you’ll slowly start getting annoyed with it. Like the fact that you have to keep logging in to read the messages people leave you, even though Facebook sends you an email… if only to notify you that an email is waiting for you.

    I’m certain that Facebook is destined to end up a haven for teens and non-techie types. MySpace 2.0 anyone?

  11. Aaron Gustafson said on

    I’m interested to see how you like it by the time AEA rolls around. I have (so far) refused to take the plunge as

    I’m not really happy about having to have an account to see any content, and
    it just feels like another MySpace (albeit one that’s “OK” to join)

    But perhaps I’m just missing something.

  12. Josh Stodola said on

    I got a couple invites to Facebook about 6 months ago and decided to sign up for the hell of it. While I think the site is not a bad idea, I have only logged on a few times since. I will have to side with Ara. I am approaching the point where I wish I never signed up. I guess I am anti-socially networked.

  13. erat said on

    Well, Jeff, I’d say you need to move to a different office.

  14. Stebbins said on

    “The real reason, of course, for all this stuff, is that it provides a way to blow off work you should be doing,”

    You mean like getting the results of the ALA survey online?

  15. FSFunky said on

    I propose we amend this to “mostly harmless”.

  16. Eddie Welker said on

    I see my friends/roommates plunge themselves into myspace or facebook, and spend hours there. I can’t afford to waste that sort of time (the main reason I never signed up in the first place). They login to send messages to other people, and then logout so they can check their email. I simply send and receive email at the same time. Additionally, they spend long periods of time adjusting their “profiles” or whatever so they look and or behave the way that they want. I am so picky that I would never be able to make a myspace or facebook behave the way I want.

    But then again, I should probably mention I am no where near the most social person in the world. That likely has something to do with it as well….

  17. rik abel said on

    i’m far too busy working – from the comfort of my walled-in cave atop a lofty peak – on http://www.anchorites.com to be signing up for facebook and their ilk.

  18. Bridget Stewart said on

    The real reason, of course, for all this stuff, is that it provides a way to blow off work you should be doing, while creating the illusion that you are achieving something.

    This sounds exactly like the countless hours I have wasted spent leveling up my various ‘toons on many a MMORPG. Getting to level 50 or 60 or getting the phat lewtz seems like such an accomplishment at the time…

  19. Shane said on

    What I can’t figure out is why everyone is using these sites like MySpace and Facebook and Twitter to occupy their time at work when Freecell and Spider Solitaire still work perfectly well on my machine.

  20. lieb said on

    In the beginning there was Compuserve, GENie, and AOL – walled members only communities. Then came the web and set us free. It seems we’ve come full circle back to these members only communities.
    Paul

  21. Wolf said on

    I was wondering whether you wanted to be my friend on Facebook?

  22. Mike Cherim said on

    I have played around with a lot of this stuff. I have a MySpace page (I think!), I have a Facebook account that I never go to, I have a Twitter account, but the only thing I ever write is that I am writing in Twitter at the moment. I have a Ma.gnolia account to which I do actually bookmark stuff (and thanks for adding me to your contacts Jeff; I’m honored), and I belong to a couple of other social sites but I cannot remember what they are.

    I suppose I’m too busy for most of it — and some of it just doesn’t really make that much sense to me. I’m not saying these things aren’t cool or have merit, it’s just that personally I fail to see the value. Twitter is a prime example. I don’t have any bad to say about Twitter… it is very popular and has extracted interest from the whole I-want-to-invest-money-in-Web-2.0 crowd, but can’t say I really care that buddy Joe is eating a ham sandwich for lunch. And does anyone care that I just decided to move my monitor to the other side of my desk?! I would think not, though I suppose there are those who do care and do want to know, but those folks must have a lot of spare time or somehow see a value that I am missing.

    Speaking of Twitter, explicitly, what is the value? I’d be curious to what others say about it. Maybe I’m missing some crucial element that makes it a must-have, or some value that I have failed to recognize. I keep an open mind about this stuff but only for so long, then I drop out.

    At the other end of the spectrum, sites like Flickr are the bees-knees in value. That one I use regularly.

    @Bridgett: Like an MMORPG. Good analogy, very apt :-)

  23. Frank said on

    The main problem with Facebook is that there is no way to check to see if anyone you know is a member of the site unless you join the site. That is completely ridiculous. I also want to second what Beth said, I am sick of people wanting to communicate via mySpace instead of just sending me an email. It is beyond a waste of time (except for those that live with their mySpace page always open) to get an email telling me I have a message so that I have to then log in to their horribly ugly interface just to read the message.

  24. Seth said on

    You can’t masturbate at work? Wow. If we live in a world where a tax paying citizen can’t openly masturbate at work then the terrorists have won!

  25. George Huff said on

    This post reminded me to check my twitter.

    It’s value is the steady stream of conscience from minds one deems interesting, for better or worse.

  26. Ryan said on

    Facebook was awesome in college, but now that I’ve been graduated for a couple years, I rarely use it. What is funny, however, is watching the Facebook-frenzy tearing through the blogosphere this year, in much the same way it took our school by storm in 2004. Makes me feel like an old man, ha ha!

  27. Eric Smith said on

    Maybe if more and more people use Facebook, they’ll open an IPO. Then I can jump in and ride the Google-esque cashwave that I missed when Google opened.

    Even if you’re an anti-social-network type, you have to respect the group of twenty-somethings that have built something so semantic and data-driven. If everything were coded as open-ended (yet secure), we’d be living in a much tastier world wide web.

  28. Antonino Medina said on

    I was in a party the other day, and a friend told me that Facebook was run by the C.I.A., which I don’t care, but it got me thinking… can those guys put their ugly hairy noses there?

  29. Adam Greenfield said on

    Trust me, the CIA couldn’t care less…

    …mostly because you’ve got the wrong agency. ; . )

  30. Tristan Louis said on

    It’s true that most of this stuff is addictive and, for the most part, generating value for someone else. So I figured that while I am trying this stuff out, I never invite people who are not already there. It’s kind of a self-selective way of saying that the best reason for not inviting people who haven’t passed the door is to ensure that they don’t wait as much time as you do on any of this :)

    TNL

  31. Jason Kratz said on

    I find more and more professional people that I know are signing up for Facebook accounts and using it in the same way they use LinkedIn.

    I have a Facebook account and find it interesting. It definitely is a nicely done website. I log in every once in awhile to check what is going on but most of my communication is done via email or IM. I just like to try to keep up with these things to see what is going on out there and see how people are doing it.

    It certainly is better than MySpace ;)

  32. Ray said on

    I have to sign in to find friends, but only those friends who have mail with disposable domains, like oh I don’t know, hotmail or aol.

    And when I do get your notification that you’ve messaged me in Faceless, sorry, Facebook, I can’t read it because it comes in HTML!

    Masturbation is more efficient.

    By the way, I was forced to join so I could develop an application for it. Job’s done, I’ll be terminating forthwith. I miss the unversioned Web.

  33. Jeff Croft said on

    I’m not too big on the social software thing, personally. I don’t Tweet but once every two months and I don’t use MySpace or Virb (although I do have accounts). I usually just can’t get into these things. The only “social network” that I really all the time is Flickr — but that’s a bit of a different beast.

    Facebook has proved slightly more sticky than the rest for me. I got into it when I was a staff member at a university in a very conventional college town (Manhattan, Kansas). Meet a girl in a bar there, and the first question one of you would ask was, “are you on Facebook?” Invariably, they were. And this, I think, is the difference, for me. Facebook somehow seems to facilitate real-life relationships for me. It lets me keep tabs on my friends and know what they’re up to, but it doesn’t really seem to encourage they idea that I will just add a bazillion people (including porn stars, bands, celebrities, and really hot girls that live in LA and have 10,000 friends but don’t actually exist) that I don’t actually know so that my profile will be more impressive. I’m not entirely sure how Facebook managed this, but somehow, the usage of Facebook is generally more “real.” My social network on Facebook is very closely tied to my social network in the real world. I like that. Still — I cant say I use Facebook much. I log in a couple times a week, usually becaues it sent me an e-mail telling me I should, for some reason. But I like it.

    However, the walled garden aspect of Facebook has really started to irritiate me, lately. I really felt it when I got my iPhone. I wanted to get all my contacts’ info into my Mac OS X address book, so tht it would be synced onto my phone. Much of that info was in Facebook — and it tends to be up-to-date, to boot. So, I figured, I’ll just export a vCard and import it into Mac OS X’s address book. Uhh, no. Can’t do it. In fact, there was no way for me to get that data out. Facebook has an API. I’m comfortable writing Python scripts to pull from an API. Way too hard, I thought, but I was still going to do it. Uhh, no. The API doesn’t expose that info. You simply can’t get it in any usable format. Lame. Really lame.

    Zuckerberg and Facebook are clearly trying for world domination. That’s their primary goal. That wouldn’t be so bad, if serving users needs was at least second on the list of goals. But it doesn’t seem to be. After that episode, I got very uncomfortable with the fact that I was relying on this company to store my personal data. I’ll still use it, but I’m not going to rely on it anymore. Which is too bad, because it really is a nice service.

  34. Tzury bar Yochay said on

    For a guy like me who struggle every day to have an hour or two with his wife and the new born baby, I see face book as a great tool that helps me stay in touch with people who started to think I don’t like them any more.

  35. Don Ulrich said on

    I have been waiting to speak about this. I travel from a different place in time. Where FM was new and cool. For most of you a long time ago :-).

    Can anyone here remember Citizen Band (CB) Radio? All Facebook, MySpace, etc are is a metaphor for what Shortwave and CB Radio were. The information on social websites is no better and no more semantic than the radio waves that carried such information a generation or so before it. [Just more latent, is that a good thing?] Only the bandwidth use has changed. Soon, like CB Radio Social networks will be put in perspective for they are. Hopefully this time around we will put bandwidth to bettter use. So far it has not happened.

    BTW Jeffrey I write backends. In another life I was a DJ and 1st class radio telephone engineer for a television station. I have been ‘surfing’ bandwidth for years.

  36. Don Ulrich said on

    LOL just saw this via Dinfilter by way of Quotes of the day:

    “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”
    Edward R. Murrow

  37. Renata said on

    Facebook can be an infinite time sucker. I like it for the infinite amounts of gossip it provides me with (she’s getting married?? they broke up??), but the newfangled applications annoy the crap out of me. And the more my friends do it, the more irritated I get. I may like seeing my friends’ vacation pictures and the like, but I have no desire to “pet” their virtual pets (“the Return of the Tamagochi”, anyone?)

  38. John said on

    Does anyone, who doesn’t use facebook, myspace bebo etc, notice how little chain mail/funny emails/funny youtube/etc is going around through email now? I used to be plagued by rubbish sent by friends and family, and now it all goes through social sites. It’s great! I only get mail from strangers selling me drugs and diplomas now.

  39. Matthew Steiner said on

    I find it fascinating that it provides people the ability to put up their own personal website with ease. It’s amazing how much time people waste on the stupid little applications though. I too and against it, and just point people to my personal website, but as you say it’s the only way to communicate with some people.

  40. patrick h. lauke said on

    “At least in most offices, you can’t masturbate at your desk”

    was that a reference to big train’s wanking sketch?

  41. Hal O'Brien said on

    “…the wonder of organising their data in a semantic way…”

    Korzybski wept.

  42. Jared M. Spool said on

    For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out Facebook’s business model.

    Then it occurred to me.

    Once they’ve taken all of your free time, they are going to sell it back to you at a premium.

  43. Hanan Cohen said on

    Jeffery, posts like this remind me why I follow your writing and insights for more than a decade.

    Bingo! from the first word to the last.

  44. Travis Cole said on

    iLike does support linking your iLike account and facebook account. You have to be logged into iLike, and have the iLike app added to your facebook profile. Then just go here: http://apps.facebook.com/ilike/link_account/

  45. dogsthat said on

    Hm, something that is “as easy as farting and as addictive as cigarettes”…? How about an underpant nicotine patch triggered by a release of methane? Just an idea, I have nothing better to do (well, there is work I guess).

  46. Sinisa Dukaric said on

    Luckily I’ve managed to avoid Tweeter and all the invites for it. I’m still off of Facebook as well and I’m a quiet happy with that too.

    Actually I’m trying to lower down the number of any active accounts on similar web services and I’m already starting to feel much more releaved and have more time instead of spending it by goin’ trough those ugly html mails just to see when somebody pissed or eaten something good.

    +1 for masturbation :)

  47. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    @Travis, you are right, and it works (albeit weirdly). Clearly, iLike should update its FAQ, which unequivocally states that the two accounts cannot be connected:

    iLike™ Help Center

    I use iLike on Facebook – can I combine my accounts and my iLike Challege score?

    Many users have asked to combine their iLike account and their iLike on Facebook account. Right now, we don’t have that feature developed, but we will let current iLike users know once it is ready. We appreciate your patience. To watch what new features we are pushing out, please check out our iLike blog.

    Last update: 2007-07-18 00:18

  48. Hank Lynch said on

    Yeah, I don’t really get the whole twitter thing either. Maybe I’m getting too old and crusty.

  49. Heidi Cool said on

    I’m still trying to understand Facebook. I’ve had my account for a few years, but only dusted it off this summer when I began a quest to understand more about social media/Web 2.0. Having added a bunch of my favorite books, and music to the site, added a few wall posts and thrown sheep and other entities at my friends I still don’t fully have the grasp of it. One of my Streamy friends, a college student, says he uses it to keep track of what his real world friends are doing through their status updates, photo uploads and so forth. I guess it would be different if I were younger and my friends were all using it in that manner as well.

    But I am intrigued by this social media world. I’m exploring it for the reasons you stated–as a Web designer I should know about such things. I’ve been dependent on Flickr for a few years now (far more productive than making photo galleries by hand) and have, of late been, rather taken with Pownce and Streamy. Why I took to those more easily than Facebook I don’t know; perhaps its just a matter of matching the service to one’s goals and habits.

    I look forward to hearing how your Facebook experience progresses.

  50. Kevin Crawford said on

    You can send commands to stuff like Remember the Milk via twitter. Since you can send updates & messages to twitter via SMS text messaging, that’s kinda handy.

  51. phil said on

    I finally signed up for Facebook after going back home to the UK for a weekend and hearing everyone I knew gab on about it. “I tagged you in a picture”, “what’s your Facebook”, etc. I’d followed it since it was .edu only, but never felt compelled to sign up, but now I felt like I was missing out. I added a few contacts and it’s fun to see what people are up to, but I don’t feel any desire to check it every hour or anything like that. The status thing is fun though. It was interesting (and funny) to see one of my brother’s twenty-something friends call Facebook “the posh MySpace”, which I thought nailed it perfectly…

  52. Wendy said on

    Firefox has a Facebook toolbar so you can be logged into Facebook but still surf the net

  53. Jim said on

    “You can’t masturbate at your desk.” Have they been showing Big Train in New York?

  54. Frances Berriman said on

    I gave into Facebook only 2 days ago. I’m finding it horribly addictive, but mostly pointless. Now I’ve friended everyone in the universe I’ve met and add all the apps of the sites that I DO actually use, I’m not entirely sure what I’m meant to do now.

  55. Derek Pennycuff said on

    the most interesting social media thingie i’ve found in the past couple of years is stumble upon. you can consider this an official invitation, although no version currently exists for your default browser.

  56. Kelly Smythe said on

    Masturbation. That’s what original facebooks in college were primarily used for and its why people spend time on the digital equivalents now. Flirting. Masturbation. Dating. You guys don’t “get it”? There’s nothing to get. You check out some hot chicks. Or hot dudes. The site is loaded with them…and they actually give you information about themselves which makes fantasizing about them (or actually connecting with them) that much better. Pretty simple if you ask me. Almost like a free version of match.com except not everyone is a loser. On facebook, girls can be hot and hoochy and get lots of attention. Guys can tell the world how cool they are. People can see how’s got more successful or better looking friends than the next person. Pretty good model. Stick to the basics. Human nature baby.

  57. Holmes said on

    exactly how much did facebook pay you to write this? This is the worst type of avertising there is.

  58. Mark Guertin said on

    Well said. I joined for client reasons, but it sucked me in as well. It’s _mostly_ harmless .. except for all the application spam that’s started to creep up. The latest revelation app designers (if you can call them that!) for facebook have figured out is how to violate the user’s privacy and get away with it. Several unnamed apps are now spamming user who don’t want their apps installed (i.e. they have been invited but ignored the requests) through the users that invited them. I’m not getting all kinds of unwanted emails from facebook telling me that such-and-such has posted on my Funwall … except .. I don’t have a Funwall nor do I want one. Contacting the developers didn’t help so I started a group to bring some more attention to it.

    Facebook is a great experiment to watch for us web application designers / interface designers. They broke a lot of the Web 2.0 “rules” … they don’t say beta, they are not shiny/plastic/reflective, they are mostly “flat” html, but … they have millions of users and are growing at an esponential rate. I use them as an example to a lot of clients that demand bubbly, shiny, reflective sites that are more images than code as proof that you don’t need to waste your end user’s bandwidth on a ton of un-needed images in order to gain market share. You need a viable product.

    P.S. When will clients figure out that they are about 2 years too late to start building the next “big” social network.

  59. Jeremy Ivy said on

    I’ve joined Facebook but I rarely check it. Occasionally I get an add from someone vaguely familiar in some cthonic past life. I use Myspace for band promotion, but even that is getting really tired at times. These socail network things are a drag man. And that’s why I have a twitter account and a blog too. :P

  60. Zaproszenia ślubne kartki świąteczne said on

    Personally, I don’t recommend Facebook, but well just check it by yourself ;)

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  65. Anonymous said on

    Wow! I had never read this before and was thinking of the phrase “Facebook Considered Harmless”, Googled “Considered Harmless” and found this!

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