Thursday, October 11, 2007

Saving Facebook

It's all been said already by those who can say it better than I can:

The Children’s Hour: Facebook Apps Are for Toddlers (There, We Said It)
Blackbird, Rainman, Facebook and the Watery Web
Facebook ‘Grants’ Devotees a Disappointment

But when did I ever let that stop me before?

My history of "social web" goes something like this...

I've had a web page for almost as long as individuals outside of universities could have web pages of their very own. Why? Because it was there. I've always been more interested in the creating/writing/tinkering than with whether anyone was reading it. I've never even told family members or most of my friends (and certainly not employers) that I even had a web page. My web pages have always been anonymous, or as now, used an "online" identity, and I think with fairly good reason. Until someone pays me to be a journalist, I'd just as soon not have to worry so much about identity theft, stalking, and things like that.

In the time since the early Web, I've participated in dozens of online activities, chat rooms, IRC, instant messengers (just about all of them at one time or another), and on to 3D virtual reality systems, which led to operating a forum, creating a lot of content for the forum, starting a blog, then another, and another, buying a few domain names, and so on.

In the process, I've made a few online friends. People who I would never have met in real life, but who are just as much friends as those I have met in real life. Friendships are built on common interests, common viewpoints, common struggles, longevity, trust, and so on, and whether they are primarily face-to-face, primarily by e-mail, on-line chat, or Morse Code, I think is far less important than those other factors.

But I'm not sure the founders of Facebook see it that way. In fact they make it clear they want you to only use your real name, something I am loath to do. I know this because I saw one of them in a YouTube interview say exactly that, and that their goal was to mirror each persons "real world" network of friends, associates and relatives. I'm getting ahead of myself though, first back to my history...

One of the many things I did to experiment with the Internet was to set up a domain named "". The original plan was very simple. At the dawn of the personal web page era, it occurred to me that there were far too many people giving far too much information out about themselves to total strangers. My plan was to do a tongue in cheek parody of such efforts as an example of what not to do. Paperworth, a name I chose because I couldn't find that real name in a phonebook or online anywhere (I have since) was going to be the name of a fictitious family in "mid-America" who's father had just gotten his very own web page for the family. I've told this story before, so I won't drag it out, but I was going to include photos of the family, pets, and kids, including such useful tidbits as where we hid the spare key to the house and what the kids route to the school bus looked like. I'd have photos that carelessly exposed credit card numbers, private phone numbers, and so on. The only thing that stopped me from doing it was having a real job at which I worked too hard, and too many other "hobbies" like getting drunk five nights a week and recovering the other two. OK, I probably shouldn't have divulged that last part, but I've reformed, retired, and told potential employers where they can stick it so many times that any career for me will have to start with busing tables anyway. Of course when I did have enough time to do the project it was too late. Real people everywhere were now telling more about themselves to the entire world than I could ever have made up, the joke had become real, only in its reality, it wasn't funny any more.

With that in mind, I've since anonymized my domain names, checked pretty carefully for identifying info on those web photos and so on. Do I think it would be impossible to track the real me down if someone were determined to do so? Of course not. Just as you can't keep some nut from picking you at random in the grocery store parking lot as someone worth giving a hard time to, nothing protects any of us from random acts of insanity, or from very determined villains either.

So, when I first wrangled an invitation to Orkut out of curiosity (and before they were acquired by Google), I used a fake name. Orkut was fine for what it was, but it wasn't all that interesting to me. If everyone I knew in the world had suddenly shown up at Orkut, I would certainly have wanted to continue using e-mail, the telephone and air travel as a means of communicating with people. The groups you could join on special topics were less useful than the average IRC channel or Usenet group or web forum on the same topic. I soon dismissed Orkut as not useful enough to stick with. In fact at some point when I realized that almost all the messages I was receiving in Orkut were in Portuguese I just deleted my account. Apparently it had become really popular in Brazil.

It wasn't until MySpace was in the process of getting purchased for billions that I decided to test those waters again. This time didn't take nearly so long. I hated MySpace. First of all I didn't know anyone there. The interface was cluttered from the get-go, and all the features that allowed you to customise your "home page" (or whatever they called it) only seemed to make it more so. Add to that the system was very slow at times, and the things that would often spill out onto the screen taught you more than you wanted to know about MySQL and PHP (or whatever language they were using at the time). My testing of MySpace ended after only a week. I kept the ID for maybe a month, checking back from time to time for an announcement that they had thought better of it, wiped it all out and started over. When no such announcement came I again cancelled my account. One less thing to generate e-mail reminders that I hadn't signed on for a while or... whatever.

Always a glutton for punishment, I was intrigued again by the hype over Facebook (instead maybe the nature of the hype should have served as a warning).

So I signed up. Nobody invited me. Nobody I knew had told me how great it was. I just made up a name, not my real name, and signed up. There was nary more than a mild warning that they wanted you to use your real name. But like the second thing they asked for, my credit card information (which they said would be for "my convenience" in making future purchases) I decided not to take that request too seriously. Like almost everything online today, my "proof" that I was a real person consisted only of my giving them an e-mail address they could send my authorisation link to. Whoop Dee Doo! But then, I wasn't as hung up on this "real person" angle as the Facebook people seemed to be.

Oddly enough, using my online name, I was eventually discovered by several of my online friends. Hey, this Facebook thing might be useful after all! Hopefully they weren't going around looking every new user up in the phone book or something. I continued to not worry about it.

But then I looked up my university. Not working at the moment, I couldn't "join" as a member of some company, but I wanted to join something that was more than just a special interest group "sewing for men" etc. So I went to my university, where I found out you had to actually have an e-mail address associated with the university to join. Hmmm, I'm a member of an alumni thing. Is there an email address associated with that? Turns out there was, but I had never signed up for it. So off I go to do that. Of course they are fancy and really serious about identity, they get your name and address so they can send you letters begging for money. And of course if you are going to have a chance to contact old school chums through that (assuming I had any) using a fake name you just made up a few years ago would hardly do.

So now I was stuck. To test this whole social network thing with my alumni association, I'd have to change my name to my real name on Facebook. Could I even do that? After all, I'd already sworn on a stack of Bibles that I had used my real name in the first place. But the name change option was pretty easy to find, well trodden path I would say, complete with a fresh warnings like "You must use your real name", and "Facebook staff must approve your name change". Sure they do. The staff seemed to have done their work in mere seconds. My network of Facebook contacts didn't even notice a ripple in the space-time continuum.

So now that I was the real me, I could look up people and connect like crazy with other folks I went to school with right? Well, maybe. Only problem being that as wildly popular as Facebook might be at Harvard, and Stanford, and Starbuck coffee shops around Silicon Valley, it didn't seem to have caught on so well with my ole buddies at Podunk U. I couldn't find a single name there that I even remotely recognized, nor a picture, and similar to my experience with Orkut, it seemed that everyone who went to college where I had, now resides in India or Brazil. What-up with this?

Then I tried my high school. Well, I didn't see anything that required I have an old high school e-mail address, if there even was such a thing. Only problem is, they had a drop-down for the year I graduated, only the years didn't go back far enough to cover when I graduated. Now I know I'm old, but this is ridiculous. It's not like I was in the first (or 8th) graduating class or anything. I don't actually know how long the school had been around before I went there, but I know it had seen some wear and tear. So, essentially, there was not a single soul I recognized from my high school either, even though they would have all been younger than me, I should have been able to spot someone or some name, that I'd recognize. Well, at least they all hadn't moved to India!

Now this last week, a fairly well known online celebrity known as "Mini-Microsoft" was unceremoniously ousted from Facebook for the obvious TOS violation. Now MM couldn't exist as he/she does being critical of Microsoft from within, and I'm quite sure the individual made no effort to join the Microsoft employees group as that would have required an identifiable MS e-mail address. So what was the problem? Did some MS exec apply pressure to the company they were talking about investing a few million in? Inquiring minds are still inquiring on that I guess.

So there it is on "Real" versus "Virtual" identities. Facebook is only interested in the former (preferably with credit card information to go along with it), and not the latter (even if you have more REAL friends online than virtual friends in the real world). They talk a good game about verifying identities, but they really let alumni associations and workplaces do all the work. Want to game the system? Get a free web site from Google (or AOL), form a fake company and you and all your fake friends are off to the races! Are you getting the picture yet about what this company is really all about?

Now on to usability, and usefulness of Facebook. In short, as far as I can tell, there isn't any.

Is there an IM (Instant Messenger) capability? Well, no, unless you count keeping a web page open and bringing it to the foreground every 30 seconds as there is no beep or other indication of activity. Do they hook up with AIM - no, MSN - no, or the free and open Jabber used by Google - no.

They have something that sort of resembles e-mail, except that you can't send from a real e-mail system into it, or from it outbound to a real e-mail system. No, instead, you are supposed to go about your business as usual, until something important happens like, uh, someone throws a virtual pie at you from within Facebook at which time you get an e-mail message that summons you to Facebook where you are informed that "Someone has thrown a pie at you". And that's it. No fancy graphic, no splat sound, nothing. You have to wonder why they couldn't have just included the text with the e-mail message they sent you... as in: "Someone in Facebook has just thrown a pie at you, you might have better things to do than check on that right now, but if not, come on in." Who in their right mind would want to use this for business, or anything that remotely resembles business? Oh, yeah, Robert Scoble.

Yes there ARE some people who get paid to play with technology and write about their experiences. I don't begrudge such people the idyllic life they lead. I do get annoyed at the presumption that they have anything meaningful to say about how the majority of us... and by "us" I don't mean factory workers and plumbers, I mean people who work with technology, like payroll system, billing systems, aircraft avionics, and so on... how that fairly large group of people are going to benefit by whatever the latest fad is in Silicon Valley. (And while we are at it, shouldn't some of these WhizzBang things be of benefit to factory workers and plumbers?) I mean unless you are in some sort of specialized area, that somehow (and I can't even imagine how) benefits from sending and receiving a constant stream of text messages regarding what you had for lunch, how is a service like Twitter of any use to you? Sorry, but to me it can never be anything but a toy, and if you really need text messaging from anywhere at any time, then Blackberrys are already in place and do that job just fine. A better use of Silicon Valley's supposed brain power would be to duplicate the functionality of RIMs service at a fraction of the cost. How about free?

Oh, but back to Facebook, a program, that like Myspace, might dump screens full of MySQL and PHP statements out at you at any moment. The same program that wants my credit card info RIGHT AWAY, just in case they, um, need it for something, takes a regular DUMP (we used to call it that in my mainframe days and nobody ever laughed, I don't know why, it seems like such an uncomfortable word to use now) on my screen with all sorts of information that I suspect the programmers would rather I not see. How can they expect to be taken seriously? Just because the kid that started it, or stole the code, or whatever he did, looks and acts a lot like the young Bill Gates? Pull the other one. That seems like a reason to avoid Facebook like the plague. Why would anyone want to go down that road again? The biggest detour 'round the barn that technology has ever taken, Windows, and we are looking for someone just like that to invest our time, no, time and dollars into? OK, I'm dense, I admit it. So 'splain it to me Lucy.

OK, so you've now figured out I don't have much use for Facebook. I don't. As it stands anyway. But I'm not above giving my advice, and then saying "I told you so!" later when the company has run aground. Like, you know, when I was against Apple's switch to Intel, which I'm still sure, eventually, in thirty years or so, or someday, will be seen to be the mistake that I.... Well, OK, I probably got that wrong.

Take Second Life for example. For the life of me I can't figure out what to do with it other than to go in there and play tinker-toys. It's fun. But I think it should be more than that. IBM thinks it should be more than that. I think it can be more than that, easily, relative to the difficulty of a virtual reality in the first place. I've begged in the forums (while they still had forums) for better interaction with the outside world. Nothing. But I go in to talk to an IBM guy, in a well built IBM "build" and he knows less about IBM than I do. Five minutes and I've done all there is to do there other than oooh and ahhhh over how nice their building is. But these things have to be more than just fun don't they? They have to be useful for something. I'm a big supporter of Second Life, have been since the beginning. I go to an IBM presentation, "simulcast" in "real life", "Second Life" and some other virtual world (one I used to use and don't have much ongoing respect for) and the whole thing seems silly. The slides aren't in sync with the speech, they keep having to pause for technical issues, and as far as I can tell, and I really had to stretch to get this out of it: "we're in there, because it's there, and we don't have anything better to do."

Well, there is nothing wrong with doing something just because it's fun. People play video games for fun, go bowling for fun, and if they want to send text messages to each other all day for fun, who am I to say they shouldn't? Just don't pretend to be anything else but a fun thing. Second Life, if after all this time you haven't seen the advantage of hooking your virtual meetings into an IM, IRC or other text interface, I guess you never will. Can I ever send a message to an SL user without going into the interface? Can't each SL user have their own web page? Can't Facebook, using standard old HTML and RSS and messaging technologies work seamlessly with iGoogle, MSN Live, and AOL Instant Messenger? It isn't rocket science, but I guess if you 're all about scoring the next big billion dollar buy-out you can make it look like it is.

Warning to investors: It isn't worth it. Scoble and some others will tell you that once a company builds that walled garden and gets a few million users inside you will never get them to switch. Some carefully chosen examples will support that claim. But tell Yahoo that people haven't migrated from Geocities or their own e-mail program, not to mention search. Tell Blockbuster that Netflix hasn't hurt their business, or tell Netflix that Walmart, Amazon and Blockbuster going online hasn't hurt theirs (even if some of those efforts haven't been spectacular). There is a healthy ebb and flow of customers in any healthy commercial ecosystem whether it's cell phone carriers or plumbing supplies. Where there isn't that free flow of consumers there is decay. Windows, and the ecosystem that surrounds it is a perfect example. That's being fixed though, it took way too long, but it will get fixed eventually, with or without Microsoft's cooperation.

I don't think the tech sector is stupid enough to go down that road again, not during this generation of users anyway. Maybe in another twenty years when the echos of "Where do you want to go today?" have faded.

What we need today are more projects like OpenID, Jabber, cross platform operating systems and browsers and a spirit that says "I'm going to compete on features, I'm not going to lock you in, I'm going to let you weave in and out of my system freely and into others that may be of more use for you in other areas. You can get my stuff on your phone, instant messenger, home page, or inbox, it's all up to you, and we will take input from all those sources as well. And one more thing, we'll value you as a person whether you use your real name or not. We'll take the real you or the virtual you, and let you hook up with other people however you choose."

I don't hear those words coming from Facebook, and until I do, they can't be the next big thing.

Update: Apparently Dave Winer has pointed out that Facebook is a closed system. So Scoble now agrees that it sucks. Which seems odd considering his name is on this document:

here are some other handy links on the subject:

1 comment:

  1. I think that the thing that bothers me the most about Facebook too is that you have to have your real name. I was actually talking to somebody about that today. And how would you go about changing your real name to a fake name? I love it on Facebook only because it gives me the power to see people I used to go to highschool with and send emails to my neighbor that just lives across the hall from me...But you have a lot very good valid points. Thanks for telling me how much I need a life. :)