The Importance of Insignificance…

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 | Life

…in which I talk about pointlessly trivial current affairs.

By the mere fact that I’m going to write this entry, I myself become a hypocrite by jumping on the trolling hype of a topic that, in my mind, deserves not even the passing of conversation. However, in witnessing, and even being roped into all of the debate and debauchery surrounding this insubstantial first world issue, certain ideas and opinions have come to mind and I feel, as a result, that I must at least share these thoughts.

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So, what is this current issue that begs me to declare myself a hypocrite and speak at length on a topic of no great importance? Yes, they changed FaceBook again. I can’t believe that in a world where people die due to a failing healthcare system, wars are fought over the price of fossil fuels, and taxation is so out of whack that the topic of the day is that FaceBook changed its interface without consulting it’s users… again.

We should all be used to this. Ever since the inception of FaceBook, every few months it seems, something changes. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse, and sometimes it’s unnoticed for months on end until it becomes the meme of the week. I’ve seen the pattern before. FaceBook changes something, everyone wails and moans about it. They cry “why can’t it be like it was yesterday.” Over the next week or so, the roars subside and five to six months pass and then they change something else and it all starts over again.

Here’s a little secret from a off and on webmaster: the internet is dynamic and if things don’t change, people generally don’t feel like they’re getting anything. I realize that the changes aren’t always welcome, but if it doesn’t look like the monkeys behind the scenes aren’t doing something, you eventually feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick. I understand that Web 2.0 isn’t quite the same anymore, with every shifting content and information, the skeleton on which all of this hangs can go generally unaltered for much longer periods of time, but just look at a site like MySpace. It has not aged well. That’s not to say that the creators didn’t try to keep it updated, but it just suffered the trials of time harshly. FaceBook, while constantly changing, is at least constantly updating and modernizing itself. It looks less dated because of this, and thus always feels new and fresh. Yes, the features themselves may not always be welcome, but at least they’re making themselves noticed.

I think the issue I have a problem with, however, is not the changes but the reactions. Especially the “why doesn’t FaceBook listen to it’s users!” ranting. Here’s the thing: FaceBook is a public access service, not unlike basic cable or even broadcast television. Television is readily available so long as you have the service and equipment to access it, but as far as programming and content are concerned, you have very little influence. Anything you watch will present you with content that someone else decided you might like, in a format that they believe will be pleasing or entertaining to you. If you don’t like it, you have only one real recourse, and that’s to not watch it. Sure, there are forums and contact listings for those responsible, but realistically, there will be very little traction there. You’re really only going to be successful at changing the direction of your program by changing the ratings. Ratings draw in advertisers, advertisers bring money, money encourages programming. You want the programming to change, you need to threaten the revenue.

The same thing is true of FaceBook. If you want them to know you don’t like the service, then stop using it. I know people will argue that you “can’t stop using FaceBook, it’s become critical in modern society.” That’s bullshit. I know plenty of people who’ve quit social networking and they are no worse off for it. FaceBook is one of those things that we, in the first world, feel like we absolutely need. We feel disconnected without it, but in all truth, and you might have to step outside yourself for a minute to see this, it’s pointless. Ten years ago, I didn’t care who was eating S’Mores, or how many people are watching Castle, or if you need a new wheel for your covered wagon. I’ll admit that there’s seemingly important stuff on FaceBook as well, but nothing that can’t be gleaned or gathered elsewhere, without even giving up the immediacy of FaceBook. You’re life will not end if you leave FaceBook. A friend of mine used a turn of phrase one time that I think is very appropriate here: “you vote with your feet,” meaning that if you don’t like what someone is doing, you walk away from the situation.

I’ll admit, I spend a decent amount of time on FaceBook. At one point, I spent far too much time on there, losing gallons of precious work time just trolling for new updates. I’ve watched students and student workers while away hours and hours in my computer lab just hitting refresh or skipping from link to video to picture all without ever leaving the site. It’s a phenomenon, but only because we make it so. I will proudly say that when FaceBook added the “Top News” feature, I gladly accepted it because it immediately let me ignore half of the inanity on the site. I’ll be honest, if I miss a quip from someone along the way, I don’t even notice. And if someone else mentions that I missed it, I can always go back and look it up, or we can just talk about it in the moment. Nothing get’s lost, it just changes its level of importance.

My wife even commented that she has to keep up with some 185 friends. I told her that she doesn’t really have 185 “friends,” she has 185 people who she is loosely acquainted with that she follows. Ten years ago, we wondered what all those people we knew 20 years ago were doing. Today, we not only know what they’re doing, but who they’re doing it with, when, and where. We don’t recognize that it’s an information overflow because it’s been a kind of saturation creep. Little by little, our lives have been overrun by trivia. It’s not even the cool kind of trivia that will at least win you games at your local bar, but trivia about people that are only mildly relevant to our own sense of nostalgia.

So lets turn the debate around. Lets not yell about how FaceBook isn’t listening, or how we’re paying FaceBook with our traffic and our ad clicking. Instead, lets look at how FaceBook has inundated itself into modern life and is slowly taking over our lives and our time. I’d be very curious to know how much of our money, spent on goods and services each day, month, and year, is actually paying someone to sit and look at FaceBook when they’re supposed to be working. We gripe when the cashier is texting instead of taking the next customer in line, but think of how much of this goes on behind the scenes, where we can’t see it. How many deadlines are extended because the workforce is FaceBooking.

I, for one, embrace the changes that have come down from our alien overlords. They have made FaceBook less obtrusive without actually being less functional. The information is still there, its just more customizable. You can control better what you see and what you don’t. The only problem comes from when you feel like you must see everything. Let go a little bit and try to take in a little less information. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something in the real world that’s more exciting, when you’re not glued to your FaceBook updates. And here’s one final tip… of the 239 “friends” I have on FaceBook, I only really care about a handful of them. I put all of those people in a group (now called lists it would seem), and spend the most of my FaceBook time looking at just their updates. I save a lot of time and get 90% of what I was looking for without any hassle. For the other 10%, I just hit the “Top Stories” and let myself be surprised.

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  • Nice post!

    I’ll admit to be irritated at first with changes, but I’ll just chalk that up to the usual human response of “change…bad! Must…smash!”. Then, upon reflection, I shrug my shoulders and try to figure it all out.

    It’s similar to the wailing and gnashing of teeth I see in the comments of some of the webcomics that I follow. So many people forget that they are enjoying the benefits of a service without paying anything but spare time.

  • Yes! And I agree that we are technically paying them simply by giving them hits and readership, but largely they are doing everything for free, so your options really are adapt or quit. I think it’s the stress levels of society that lead us to burst out in rage at even the most insignificant things. We were not designed to maintain such high levels of tension, so we explode at stupid stuff without even thinking twice.

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