Facebook: not dead, but still dead frustrating

Reports of the demise of the social network are exaggerated, but teens appear to be leading an unlikely charge towards simplicity and privacy

Sat, Jan 4, 2014, 01:12

If you were completely new to Facebook – fresh off a boat from the 1990s, say – and encouraged to sign up, within a few minutes you could presume that Facebook didn’t like you. At all. That you were an irritant to it. Something it had to put up with in order to achieve its ultimate aims – which would appear to be (1) to own the world’s most badly edited photo collection (2) to succeed despite itself.

Even with its abundant frustrations, Facebook dominates. But it is not dying, despite widely carried recent reports. These shouted that it was – as the top line proclaimed – “dead and buried” among EU teenagers.

It turned out to be a misreporting of a narrow survey, which seemed to fit neatly with Facebook’s own admission last year that use by US teens had declined. A Pew survey this week showed instead that it remained a social-network behemoth in the States – 71 per cent of adults who are online said they used it every day, many perhaps checking up on pictures of their kids as much as they’re checking up on their actual kids.

Yet, for something so all-conquering, so ubiquitous, so addictive to so many people, Facebook really is terrible in many ways.

It is ugly. It doesn’t always make sense. It remains appallingly blunt, so that you can “like” everything from the picture of a kitten to the reports of a massacre. Filtering other people’s content is a clumsy business, and maintaining your privacy a tough one.

Facebook makes you work very hard for even the most basic privacies, so that you have to alter setting after setting and even then you aren’t sure that the whole world isn’t sniggering at your holiday snaps.

It remembers everything, so that clearing your timeline takes half a lifetime. It hounds you with friend requests you’d forgotten about, lets them squat there unanswered, until they pile up into a mound of frozen faces that were pushed aside with a click.

And even after all of that, for such an apparently open window, it does give a restricted view of a person’s life, an avatar of the person they want to project. This profile, it should say, is loosely based on real events.

Anyway, refresh. And refresh again. And like, and share, and tag, and friend, and occasionally unfriend, and check in, and hide all this person’s posts from your timeline, and ignore that friend request, and wonder why that person is asking to be your friend, and wonder why that other person hasn’t accepted your friend request. And post, and check, and despise yourself for checking so much, and fret about the picture you posted, and why doesn’t everyone like that picture of my child? I’d better post another.

And read the conspiracy theories, and the urban myths, and the posts for missing kids who never even existed. And “like” something to earn good luck. And “like” something else to avoid bad luck. And “like” this picture or the kid will die. And refresh. And refresh. But never, ever poke.

Facebook is almost everywhere, and it is not going anywhere soon. Its ubiquity is its greatest weapon, but this also encourages the growing clamour for the idea of Facebook’s coming extinction.

The Christmas period’s reports of Facebook being “dead and buried” among teens forced the researcher behind it to come out and write that things got exaggerated in the subsequent telling. Daniel Miller of University College London explained it was a door-to-door questionnaire in a small area of England, which showed that teens didn’t see Facebook as cool anymore, but which media reports mistakenly applied that to Facebook as a whole.

Nevertheless, down the demographics, there does appear to be a drift. Facebook has admitted that it is seeing a decline in daily visits by US teens, as they spend more time on Whatsapp, Snapchat, other mobile messaging apps, and basically anywhere that their parents aren’t.

Which means they are not leaning towards a bright, shiny Facebook alternative, but to a simpler, tighter network of messaging apps on their mobiles. These are simple, enclosed, direct, and in Snapchat’s case its selling point is that it deletes your history as quickly as you want it to. They are not riddled with the frustrating complications of Facebook.

They are, curiously, the kinds of things older people are supposed to yearn for. It’s a bit like dropping the iPhone in favour of an old Nokia 3310. When one person does it, it’s quirky. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a generation went that way.


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