You may remember that, sometime ago, I wrote a pretty vitriolic defence of the ‘new’ Facebook, and Google Street View too. Well, if you do, you’ll know that I like ‘net-based innovation. I think it’s great. To say it’s ‘changing the face of society’ or whatever doesn’t seem to do it justice. So it was in this spirit that I joined Twitter some time ago. It was new (at the time) and it was different. It seemed to be a really nice development of blogging, text messaging and concise communication all rolled into one. I’ve since revised my opinion about ‘net-based innovation… at least for social networking sites.
As I said, on the face of it, Twitter seems to be a really good thing. It forces people to condense their thoughts so they can communicate them in 140 characters. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Verbosity is a sin, and it’s time it was punished. But Twitter also allowed you a snap-shot of the lives of the rich, powerful, influential and famous. Everyone knows of Stephen Fry’s addiction to tweeting, and if you go to his page you can find out pretty much everything that he’s doing. I challenge even the snobbiest celeb-basher not to find that even slightly entertaining. You can even try to talk to him if you want. It’s this democratisation that makes Twitter a really pleasing thing. It allows people who have nothing in common, or from wildly different social positions, to talk to each other. Hell, Amanda Holden apparently managed to get Demi Moore to come to the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ final with a well aimed tweet. Impressive, but it desn’t make me like her any more.
But this Tweetocracy can be used for much more than stalking celebrities. When I joined a few months ago I was able to follow the science Minister, Lord Drayson. I got his thoughts about his daily activities, but I also got to talk to him. I got into a couple of conversations with his Lordship, admittedly one was about illegal copies of the latest film about Le Mans (read into that what you will re Expenses…), but also about serious matters of science policy. I don’t know whether my thoughts made a difference, and why should they, but at least he actually heard them. That, I feel, is a genuinely good thing.
What isn’t such a good thing is that this open arena seems to be being squandered. The chance for you to interact with people like Lord Drayson is great, but increasingly Twitter is being used by people to send banal ‘look at me’ style tweets to the likes of Stephen Fry to simply be noticed. For instance, every time Mr Fry posts a new picture, the comments box quickly fills up with comments that try to out-manoeuver previous commenters in terms of wit and quirkiness to try and tempt Mr Fry into sending them a congratulatory message. This is a shame. Facebook’s going a similar way. It’s got fantastic functionality for arranging parties or meet-ups, but now one of its major uses is for taking quizes that tell you what character you would be in ‘Star Wars’. This stuff in itself doesn’t bother me so much except for the fact that people have actually invested time in sending these messages and taking these quizzes. Why? What do they gain out of it? What else could they have been doing? I’ve only got suspicions about the answers to the first two, but as for the third it’s definitely ‘alot’. That bothers me.
The increasing importance of the ‘net in my life is slowly destroying me, or at least what makes me an interesting person to know. For instance, instead of going to a shop and buying a newspaper, where I may at least encounter another human being, I can now stay in bed and read* it from their website. Aside form financially ruining these fantastic institutions, this isn’t healthy. There have been days where I haven’t left the flat because I can get everything I want online, even food. Sometimes Imperial even posts lectures online so that I don’t even need to go to College. And this is where Facebook and Twitter’s claims to being ’social’ begins to break down in my eyes. Admittedly they’ve got some very useful aspects but I think that they really just make you stay inside more, staring blankly at someone-you-used-to-know’s update about what they had for breakfast, how they should never be allowed to drink again or what character they are from ‘Star Wars’.
So, as I’ve said, I’ve always been a big fan of ‘net-based innovation. I’m now not so sure. I still love practically everything that Google do, and the like, but I’m now somewhat wary about these social networking sites. In fact, I’ve deleted my Twitter account and I’m trying to wean myself off Facebook. I’ve been clean for 4 days now. It’s tough. But do you know what the most fantastic thing is, I now have time! I now don’t worry about checking Facebook every few minutes to see what X has been doing. I now get my work done when I’m sitting at my laptop, and then I go outside to, perhaps, encounter another social networking refugee. I’d encourgae you to give it a go, and even if you don’t want to go outside, you may disciver the rest of the internet. Believe it or not, there are things outside Facebook. I know it comes as a shock, but it’s true.
* When I say ‘read’ I don’t really do that properly any more: ‘grazing’ is more accuate I think. I skim some of the articles in my RSS reader, often getting little further than the first few paragraphs. That’s not good, and it’s all because I’m overwhelmed by the quantity of information available. I now do these when I ‘read’ a book, quickly getting bored and flipping ahead. Hmm.