Desert of My Real Life

{December 27, 2008}   FaceBook: A Hotel California?

Robin forwarded an article called How Sticky Is Membership on FaceBook?  Just Try Breaking Free from the New York Times.  Of course, because I’m completely addicted to FaceBook, my first thought was “Why would anyone ever want to leave?”  But I can see that there may be reasons that someone might want to leave.  And even if you don’t want to leave, FaceBook’s approach to member information might raise some privacy concerns.

According to the New York Times article, members who want to leave FaceBook find it difficult to do so because FaceBook retains information on their servers after a member deactivates her account.  As one disgruntled member says, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”  FaceBook’s executives say that they retain this information in order to make it easy for a member to reactivate her account.  That is, because the information doesn’t disappear when an account is deactivated, if the account is then reactivated, the information is available for the reactivated account.  This is obviously a problematic answer to member concerns about information retention.  If I decide to deactivate my account, I want my information to be removed from FaceBook’s servers.  In response to the ensuing uproar, FaceBook’s executives provided another process for removing information from a deactivated account.  The member must delete each piece of information and then once all the information has been manually deleted, the account can be deactivated.  Clearly, this is a tedious process that has done little to stem the tide of criticism about FaceBook’s practices.

From a technical standpoint, it should be easy to provide a one-step process for deleting all of the information in an account and then deleting the account itself.  So when I first read about the tedious process required for deleting the information associated with an account, I thought perhaps the technical folks at FaceBook had simply been overwhelmed by the success of the site and had not had time and resources to build in as much user-friendliness as the members demanded.  After all, FaceBook was created as a hobby project by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 and as of October, 2008, there were more than 140 million active members worldwide.  That kind of growth is bound to result in some pain so I figured the lack of easy account deactivation was simply part of that growing pain.

But then I read this excellent post by Steven Mansour.  Mansour points out that we voluntarily give our personal information to FaceBook which can then sell that information to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this lucrative side business is the real reason that FaceBook doesn’t want to make it easy for users to delete their accounts.  This particular privacy issue has been a concern for me for a long time.  For example, I am one of the few people I know who has no rewards cards–the kind of cards that you get from grocery stores and book stores where you provide your personal information in return for savings on items that you buy.  I have not found that the savings on my purchases has been worth the price of making my private information available to these large corporations.  It had not occurred to me that FaceBook might be engaged in the same kind of information harvesting as Hannaford Brothers and Borders Books and Music.  But I guess I was just being naive.  And the sad thing is that knowing that FaceBook might be engaging in this behavior has not convinced me to leave FaceBook.  In return for my information, I get easy-to-use tools that help me keep up with my friends’ lives.  I guess everyone has her price.

{December 9, 2008}   Mob Wars

I have recently been playing Mob Wars on FB. I started because Ann and Liz both invited me to be part of their mobs. I nearly stopped playing after Thanksgiving but Scott begged me not to uninstall the application because he wanted me to stay in the mob. As a result of these friends playing, I have continued. But I have to echo Liz when I say, “It’s no Parking Wars.” So why doesn’t Mob Wars stack up well against Parking Wars? To understand why Parking Wars is a better game, I think we have to understand a little bit about how to play each game.

Mob Wars is a game in which the player plays a mob boss. Each mob boss has a number of characteristics, represented by numbers. The characteristics include health (with a starting maximum value of 100), energy (starting maximum value of 20), stamina (starting maximum value of 3), attack (starting maximum value of 3) and defense (starting maximum value of 3). In addition, each mob boss has a stockpile of weapons and vehicles, an amount of cash and experience points. The goal of the game is to move up the levels (called leveling up) by gaining experience points. Experience points are gained in a number of ways.

The first way to gain experience points is to complete jobs. Every job requires some amount of energy as well as some tools (weapons, vehicles, mobsters, other items such as bottles of liquor) and, upon successful completion, pays cash within a certain range. Another way to gain experience points is to fight other mobs (and beat them). Once an appropriate number of experience points is gained, the player is alloted 3 skill points that she can distribute among her many characteristics (such as maximum health, maximum energy and so on).

These are just the beginning of the MANY decisions that need to be made while playing Mob Wars. As I’ve written before, decision-making is a very important factor in determining whether a game is engaging. In general, the more meaningful the decisions that need to be made in a game, the more engaging the game is. A meaningful decision is one that allows the player to delineate a strategy for winning the game. In other words, for a decision to be meaningful, there must be multiple choices, each of which may lead to a winning strategy, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Mob Wars requires the player to make a series of meaningful decisions. For example, my stamina in Mob Wars is currently set to 9. Each time a player chooses to fight some other mob (hoping to gain experience points and take some of that mob’s money), the player’s stamina is reduced by 1. In other words, I can engage in 9 fights with other mobs in a row without waiting for my stamina to be replenished. For me, however, this value rarely comes into play because of other choices that I have made. In order to win a fight, I must spend my money on weapons and vehicles. Instead, I have chosen to spend my money on properties within the city which allows me to earn more money at a faster rate (without having to fight). Because I don’t have as many weapons and vehicles as other mobs, I lose a lot of fights which decreases my stamina without gaining me anything. Until I purchase more weapons and vehicles, it doesn’t make sense for me to add more stamina to my mobster. This is just one meaningful decision among many that I must make.

Parking Wars, on the other hand, has relatively few meaningful decisions. There are basically two. First, the player must decide on whose streets she is going to park her cars. She is allowed to park her cars on her friends’ streets as well as those of three anonymous strangers’ streets. Second, once she earns a certain amount of money, she must decide which specialized car she is going to purchase (if any). That’s it! There are no other meaningful decisions.

Therefore, according to Costikyan (one of the game theorists that I make my students read), because Mob Wars has more interesting meaningful decisions than Parking Wars, Mob Wars should be a more engaging game than Parking Wars. But it isn’t. And here’s why I think that’s the case.

Both games are played on FaceBook, a social networking tool that is all about connecting with people. Parking Wars involves more interesting social interaction than Mob Wars and since the context of playing the two games is a social interaction site, Parking Wars is more interesting. In Parking Wars, a player parks on her friends’ streets and has her friends park on her streets. She is able to ticket her friends when they park illegally and send them messages on those tickets. She begins to learn her friends’ patterns–when they check their streets, whether they give tickets at low values or wait until the tickets become more valuable, and so on. In addition, there is the possibility of creating alliance with certain friends, agreeing not to ticket that friend’s illegally parked cars. Noticing and commenting on these alliances is also engaging. In fact, Nick created a group called Parkaholics Anonymous in which he explicitly commented on my alliance with Ann. All of this is part of the engagement of Parking Wars.

On the surface, Mob Wars has similar social possibilities via the “mob” aspect of the game.  That is, the members of a player’s mob are her friends.  The fact that a player is in the same mob as one of her friends does not impact on her playing of the game, however. She cannot explicitly take advantage of the fact that she has friends with certain characteristics in her mob. This is a missed opportunity and, I think, the main reason Mob Wars is not as engaging as Parking Wars.

I believe this goes to show that there is not a single reason for playing a game. Game designers would be well advised to pay attention to the context of a game and why players might be interested in playing as they design the interactions and decisions involved in playing their games.

{September 21, 2008}   Parking Wars

Earlier this month, I was out for drinks with colleagues. Most of us are friends on FaceBook as well as in real life. A new colleague, Marylena, mentioned that one of her favorite things to do on FaceBook is play Parking Wars. Her sheepish description of the game was not particularly intriguing but because I’m always interested in the games people play, I decide that I would check it out. And once I had played for a few days, I invited some other friends to play as well. Now I’m addicted.

The game is an advertisement for an A&E channel show, also called Parking Wars. I have never seen the show and playing the game doesn’t make me want to go watch the show. So although I think the game is successful as a game, I’m not so sure it’s successful as an advertisement.

Here’s how the game is played. The premise is that you are in charge of a street with five spaces on it. Some of the five spaces do not allow parking. Some allow parking for only cars of a certain color. And some might allow parking for cars of any color. The arrangement of these five spaces changes at random. In addition, you have some cars of your own that you need to park. You can’t park them on your own streets. Instead, you have to park them on the streets of your friends (of course, only those friends who have also installed the Parking Wars application) and two strangers. For every minute that your car is parked on a particular street, the car gains monetary value. When you move the car from one spot to another, you earn the value of that car at that moment. You also earn money if you catch someone parked illegally on your street–you ticket them and you earn the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing. Of course, if it is your car that is ticketed, you lose the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing.

When I first started playing Parking Wars, my only FaceBook friend who was playing was Marylena. So I could park on her street and on the streets of two strangers. I installed the application, parked my two cars and then promptly forgot about the application. A few days later, I received a FaceBook message from Marylena telling me that there were cars parked illegally on my street just waiting for me to ticket them. I’ve been hooked on the game ever since. I went to the game, ticketed Marylena, got the money from those tickets and became a Parking Pro (I had been a Parking Amateur up to that point). I also was able to purchase a third car, which allowed me to start earning more money. That act of altruism on Marylena’s part stuck with me because it hooked me on the game. After playing for a few days with only three streets to park on, I realized that the game would be much more fun if I had more streets to choose from. So I invited my closest FaceBook friends (who are my closest friends in real life–go figure) to play the game. Within hours, I had seven streets to park on and the game was even more fun.

As my friends became acquainted with Parking Wars, I watched them move from Parking Amateurs to Parking Pros. I explained how the game worked. And I engaged in the same sort of altruism with them that Marylena had shown toward me. I parked illegally on their streets, simply so they could earn some money and thus, become hooked on the game.

Today, I was explaining this game to Evelyn. I mentioned the altruism because I had been somewhat uncomfortable with the part of the game that tempts you to park illegally if you can get away with it. I thought the altruism redeemed this troubling aspect of the game somewhat. Evelyn pointed out to me that the altruism sounded like the kind of altruism that heroin dealers show to potential new clients. They give away a taste of the heroin for free, hoping to capture their new clients in addiction so that they become lifelong customers. She’s absolutely right in making this comparison. I was trying to get my friends addicted to the game by giving them a taste of what the game has to offer. Their long-term addiction was worth the short-term hit to my current cash level because in the long run, it’s good to have more people to play with.

So games really are like drugs! They both give us the same little jolt of pleasure in our brains.

{September 7, 2008}   We ARE Telling Stories

As I suggested in a previous post I don’t understand why FaceBook calls each status update a story. I said that if we were to consider each update a plot point in a longer story, then I could understand the use of the word story. Clive Thompson, in a New York Times article, explains that part of the reason these status updates (no matter how banal they might seem individually) are compelling is precisely because taken together, they tell us a story of our friends’ daily lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s a fascinating article. Thanks to Liz for pointing it out to me.

I can now be found on Twitter. I look forward to reading 140-character installments of your life story there.

FaceBook is changing how we view and think about many aspects of our lives, including literature. As an example (from McSweeney’s), here is Sarah Schmelling’s version of Hamlet, written in the sound bite style of a FaceBook News Feed.


– – – –

Horatio thinks he saw a ghost.

Hamlet thinks it’s annoying when your uncle marries your mother right after your dad dies.

The king thinks Hamlet’s annoying.

Laertes thinks Ophelia can do better.

Hamlet’s father is now a zombie.

– – – –

The king poked the queen.

The queen poked the king back.

Hamlet and the queen are no longer friends.

Marcellus is pretty sure something’s rotten around here.

Hamlet became a fan of daggers.

– – – –

Polonius says Hamlet’s crazy … crazy in love!

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet are now friends.

Hamlet wonders if he should continue to exist. Or not.

Hamlet thinks Ophelia might be happier in a convent.

Ophelia removed “moody princes” from her interests.

Hamlet posted an event: A Play That’s Totally Fictional and In No Way About My Family

The king commented on Hamlet’s play: “What is wrong with you?”

Polonius thinks this curtain looks like a good thing to hide behind.

Polonius is no longer online.

– – – –

Hamlet added England to the Places I’ve Been application.

The queen is worried about Ophelia.

Ophelia loves flowers. Flowers flowers flowers flowers flowers. Oh, look, a river.

Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don’t Float.

Laertes wonders what the hell happened while he was gone.

– – – –

The king sent Hamlet a goblet of wine.

The queen likes wine!

The king likes … oh crap.

The queen, the king, Laertes, and Hamlet are now zombies.

Horatio says well that was tragic.

Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, says yes, tragic. We’ll take it from here.

Denmark is now Norwegian.

{August 10, 2008}   FaceBook Revisited

In honor of the recent release of the remake of Brideshead Revisited, I thought it might be interesting to revisit FaceBook.  I’ve been using FaceBook for nearly a month now and my feelings about it have evolved just as Charles Ryder’s feelings about Brideshead evolved.  (Don’t think too much about the analogy between Brideshead and FaceBook–it doesn’t really fit very well.)

You may recall that my initial reactions to FaceBook were all about freaking out.  I was especially overwhelmed by the amount of information that FaceBook was sending me via email.  I knew that I had the option to turn some of those emails off but as a new user, I was unsure about which ones it made sense to turn off.  I ended up turning them all off.  So I no longer receive any notifications about FaceBook in my email inbox.  Instead, I just receive the notifications of various updates within FaceBook itself.  I guess as a new user I had been worried about missing something but I realized that I wouldn’t miss anything if I got notified within FaceBook.  Since I visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, my notification of FaceBook happenings is not as immediate as if I were getting email updates.  But I don’t want immediate notification of what’s going on in FaceBook.  Instead, I want to be able to control when I receive those notifications.  In other words, I want to receive them when I’m interested in knowing what’s going on in FaceBook.  That is, I want to know what’s happening in FaceBook when I visit FaceBook!  Perfect.

Although I do visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, I have been visiting FaceBook several times per week.  This surprises me because my initial reaction to the social environment was not a particularly positive one.  But now that I am not being overwhelmed by information from FaceBook, I have mostly enjoyed using it.  In fact, I find it to be somewhat addicting.  I’ve been thinking a lot about why and although I don’t have any answers about that question, I do have some observations.

I currently have 43 “friends” on FaceBook.  Of these, there are probably 20 who are quite active, posting something or interacting with me several times a week.  I am most interested in the activities and communications of about 8 of these 20 active friends.  I think it’s because of these 8 that I visit FaceBook as often as I do.  What do these people have in common?  These are all people that I actually am good friends with in real life or that I could imagine being good friends with if our real life circumstances were to change.  Even though I still find the use of the word “friend” problematic in FaceBook, the way we understand the word in real life is similar to the way it actually plays out in my use of FaceBook.  

One of the most interesting aspects of FaceBook so far has been the way in which I “communicate” with most of my friends.  Very little of our interaction is directly targeted at each other.  That is, most of my friends do not post communications that are meant for me in particular.  Instead, they update some part of their FaceBook profile (such as their status) to tell all of their friends what they are currently doing.  I then read that information and find it interesting because I then know a little bit more about their daily lives.  It’s a way of touching base that would not happen without FaceBook and as a result, we get to know each other a little bit better.  And because I already like them in real life, I want to get to know them a little bit better.  In other words, the immediacy (the focus on “now”) of FaceBook, which felt so problematic when I first joined, is actually something I enjoy and look forward to.  What’s different between when I first joined and now that makes me enjoy the immediacy?  I think the main difference is that I have now gotten my FaceBook life “caught up” with my real life.  What do I mean by “caught up”? 

The rhetoric of FaceBook assumes that life begins when you join the social network.  So you are “now” friends with someone you’ve known for a long time simply because FaceBook “now” knows about that relationship.  Each time you add some detail about your life to FaceBook, the rhetoric reminds you that your life has “now” begun, that everything before either didn’t exist or was somehow not quite “real”.  The feeling that your FaceBook life is more “real” than your BFB (Before FaceBook) life is disconcerting.  But once you get the details in to your profile, FaceBook has “caught up” to your actual life and so the things that you do in FaceBook really are happening “now”.  So for me, the rhetoric no longer feels like a mismatch with my “reality”.  Now that my FaceBook life is more closely aligned with my real life, I appreciate the “nowness” of FaceBook.  The “nowness” means I’m learning current tidbits about these friends of mine.

Although most of my friends and I interact in this indirect manner, reading each other’s general updates, there is one friend with whom I have had an ongoing direct conversation.  This friend is an ex-partner of mine with whom I have maintained inconsistent email contact for the past 15+ years (since our break-up).  Now that we are both on FaceBook, we have been using its messaging system to engage in a long, intimate conversation.  The messaging system is similar to email but because it is embedded in FaceBook, I also get to see the frequent (or infrequent, depending on the friend) updates that my friends make to their profiles.  And so when a friend posts a new photo or a link she finds interesting, I can see those things which contextualizes our FaceBook messages in a way that isn’t easily accomplished via email.  So far, this long conversation with my ex has been the most surprising aspect of FaceBook for me.  Until I experienced how different this kind of direct contextualized communication via FaceBook is compared to regular email, I wouldn’t have believed that it would matter so much.  The other interesting thing about this aspect of FaceBook is that although I’ve enjoyed our online communication, I am not tempted to meet in real life for a face-to-face conversation about the break-up or about our current lives (both of which are topics in our online conversation).  FaceBook provides a useful buffer, or maybe it’s a cover, without which I’m not sure I would be comfortable enough to keep the conversation going.

Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is why FaceBook has captured my attention in a way that the other social networking environments I’ve joined (MySpace and LinkedIn, for example) have not.  My nephew is on MySpace and so I’ve spent some time communicating with him there.  But I find these other environments far less compelling than FaceBook.  One reason, I’m sure, is because most of my friends, the ones I’m interested in communicating with, are using FaceBook rather than these other environments.  But I think the main reason is that FaceBook makes it extraordinarily easy to find and communicate with people you know.  When I joined FaceBook, it immediately suggested some people that I might know.  Once I was friends with some of those people, it used their friends to suggest other people I might know.  In contrast, on MySpace, I had to think about who I might know there, coming up with their names out of the blue.  In addition, when I tried to find my nephew on MySpace, I had to weed through several pages of people with the same name, despite the fact that his friends are mostly from Goffstown NH (where he lives) and the fact that I went to Goffstown High School.  It seems like it would be a simple matter to do some sort of matching to determine which Kyle LeBlanc I might be interested in connecting with.  This is actually somewhat of a problem in FaceBook as well although my nephew was at least on the first page of many pages of Kyle LeBlancs.  He should, I think, have been the first Kyle LeBlanc shown to me in both MySpace and FaceBook.  

I also think it’s easier to communicate with your friends in a way that feels most comfortable and appropriate on FaceBook than it is on the other social networks.  For example, my nephew and I were both on MySpace at the same time last night.  I wanted to chat with him but in order to do so, I had to install a separate application (MySpace IM with Skype).  On the other hand, the chat facility is built into the basic FaceBook interface so there’s no extra installation required.  I appreciate that extra ease of use in FaceBook.

I still think there are some interesting problems with FaceBook but overall, I have been happy with my experience there.  Time will tell whether it’s the newness of the tool that keeps me going back or whether it will become something I will wonder how I could have ever lived without.

{August 5, 2008}   We’re Not Telling Stories

One of the aspects of game analysis that my students struggle with has to do with the dramatic elements of a game. According to the text that I use in my Creating Games class (Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain and Steven Hoffman), dramatic elements are those elements of the game that help to keep the players engaged in the game. There are five dramatic elements but the ones that my students struggle with are premise and story.

The text says that premise sets the stage for the action that will propel the game forward while story has to do with actual plot points in a narrative being told by the game. For example, the premise in Monopoly is that the player is a real estate mogul. But there is no story in Monopoly because there is no action that moves from point to point as determined by the author of the game. Fullerton and her co-authors say, “Plays, movies, and television are all media that involve storytelling and linear narratives. When an audience participates in these media, they experience a story that progresses from one point to the next as determined by an author. The audience is not an interactive participant in these media and cannot change the outcome of the story.” They go on to say that games are different in that the audience (the game player) interacts with a game and can (in fact, must be able to) change the outcome of the game. So traditional storytelling methods will not work in a game system because the player will not have enough of a sense of control if she cannot change the outcome of the game. The game will feel “fixed” or “random” which will result in an unsatisfying game-playing experience. Because of this need to have the player feel that she is in control of the progress of the game, very few games incorporate story as a dramatic element. Instead, most games use some sort of premise. Of course, some premises are more elaborate than others. When a premise gets to be very elaborate, it is called a backstory. Confused yet? Obviously, the boundary between premise and story is blurry.

I’ve been thinking about the word story a lot lately because of FaceBook. Every change that is made to your profile is called a story. So, for example, every time I change my status, a story is posted to my mini-feed as well as to the newsfeed for each of my friends. And then I can look at all my status stories. In fact, here are my status stories:

Saying that each of these items is a story is confusing to me. If you were to say that together these items make a story, each item being a plot point developed by me, the author, then I would understand why the word story is used. But how is each of these items a story by itself? I think this is yet another example of FaceBook coopting a word and changing its meaning.

{July 21, 2008}   Non-FaceBook Friends, Beware

Pat sent me this article from the New York Times. So if you’re a non-FaceBook friend of mine and I don’t return your phone call, I hope you’ll understand why.

Hey, Friend, Do I Know You?

Published: July 21, 2008

Not that long ago, I needed some advice on the book business and thought to ask my friend Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights” and “A Prayer for the City.” The only sticking point was, we’d never met.

Although he used to be a reporter, we are not what I would call peers. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever, and oh, one of the best books about city government ever. “Friday Night Lights” became a movie and then a television series and apart from me being a hopeless fanboy of the show, we have nothing in common.

Other than Facebook, of course, where we are “friends,” after he was referred by our mutual friend Vernon Loeb of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Taking that supplied noun as a permission, I sent Mr. Bissinger a message on Facebook and asked for advice. We got on the phone and I found out exactly, precisely what I wanted to know from, as they say in the Web world, a highly trusted source.

Isn’t “friendship” wonderful?

Facebook, which I had always thought of as a guilty diversion just a step up from Funny or Die, does have its social — and business — prerogatives. The network is on a tear right now, achieving numerical parity with MySpace in global reach.

Last month, according to comScore, Facebook had 123.9 million unique visitors and 50.6 billion page views worldwide while MySpace had 114.6 million unique visitors and 45.4 billion page views. MySpace still dominates in the United States, but if my page is any indication, a lot of people who aren’t texting OMG about the guy sitting in the next booth feel a need to opt in to social media.

According to company executives, Facebook, which has over 80 million subscribers worldwide, doubled the number of subscribers under 35 last year, but it tripled the number of subscribers between 35 and 54. Early adopters of Facebook, which was the province of students until 2006, must wonder who let all the old guys in. Sometime in the next day or so, Facebook will unveil a major new design for the site, which users can opt-in to.

As we speak, my Facebook page, a couple of months old, is crawling past 200 friends. There are people on there whom I have known since they wore skinny ties and distressed sport coats, and there are others whom I would not know if they walked up with name tags on the size of sandwich boards. But we have friends in common, and in the parlance of social media, we are connected.

Skeptics slag Facebook and its ilk as e-mail with pictures, but do not underestimate the value of a photo — oh, he seems nice — along with a referral. If the person pinging you is friends with five friends of yours, shouldn’t that person be your friend?

Once you jack in, Facebook creates its own imperatives. Why am I uploading pictures of my last family trip to the lake in the Adirondacks at 11:45 p.m.? Because I want someone, anyone, to see them. But from a business perspective, it creates some more complications. Say the head of a media company that I occasionally cover wants to “friend” me. Seems O.K., but should he really know what I look like with my shirt off? (Trust me, don’t let the image linger. I shower with my shirt on.)

I neither want to be strategic in my postings nor selective in my friending, but I should probably be doing one or the other. I am also not religious in maintaining my profile, in part because I have no personal assistant to update my page, as one executive I know told me he does.

Its viral effects can be profound. Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out (gee, wonder how I found that?), began that mission on his Facebook page in November of 2007. The endeavor outgrew its Facebook nest and was reborn a few months later as, which offers sources to reporters who post. It started out with 694 members; now it has more than 15,000.

I think of Facebook as a middle ground between business and pleasure, sort of MySpace for post-adolescents or LinkedIn for professional late adopters like me. Facebook, developed by Harvard kids to keep track of each other, was unleashed on the world in 2004 and has become an Ivy League at large for the land-grant set, a place where it’s not whom you know, it’s whom you kind of know.

But some people want no business mixed with their pleasure.

“Web sites are similar to TV and radio stations: people expect some form of programming format,” wrote Tyler DeAngelo, interactive creative director at DeVito/Verdi. “I don’t want to hear country music on a rock station, so why do I want to hear you talk about financial reports in the same place I discuss who I have been hooking up with?” (Besides, he adds, “I’m not sure you want Tom from accounting checking out your hot daughter in her bikini last summer.”)

Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of Facebook, noted that the site is not primarily a business tool. “We are not going to help you close a deal, but Facebook is a social utility that is relevant in many contexts, including business,” he said. “As you get older, there is this huge tapestry of your life, with many inflection points from where you went to school and the jobs you had, and as more and more people connect with you, it rapidly increases the utility.”

But at some point, you lose utility as well. As Simon Dumenco noted in Portfolio, Bill Gates dropped the habit after getting 8,000 requests a day to be friends. Some social truisms — the rich will always be popular — still hold in the supposedly flat world.

When a new media winner like Facebook comes over the horizon, who loses? In my case, it’s probably my real actual friends. As a reporter, I learn to hate the telephone during the day, but at night I feel somewhat social again and step out onto the porch to call buddies for a little nocturnal quality time. Now I am too busy checking their status updates to actually speak to them.

Because so many of my friends are completely addicted to FaceBook (and threatening not to be friends with me anymore), I decided to join two days ago (less than 36 hours ago). In keeping with the entire Web 2.0 movement, I feel that I should share my impressions of FaceBook immediately, before I’ve had too much time to reflect on the experience.

The first strange experience I had on FaceBook involved the status update feature. This is a feature that allows the user to tell her friends what she’s currently doing. One of the options was “Cathie is sleeping” and so when I went to bed, I changed my status to that. Yesterday morning, I logged in for further exploration and Liz was online (and of course, by “online”, I mean “on FaceBook”). I had forgotten to change my status when I logged in and so the first thing Liz said to me was “You aren’t sleeping.” She was right, of course. I was freaked out by the fact that my un-updated status was immediately noticed and commented upon. So I changed my status to “Cathie is freaked out by the status update feature.” This was immediately commented on by the two Robins, both of whom said something like: “It’s how we track your every movement.” Which, of course, freaked me out even more.

The second strange experience is one that Ian Bogost calls “collapsed time.” After I filled out my profile on FaceBook (entering things like where I went to high school, college and so on), the first person the site suggested that I add as a FaceBook friend is someone who actually is a friend of mine, Amy Briggs. I’ve known Amy since I was in seventh grade and she was in sixth. We went to high school together and then went to Dartmouth College together, where we were two of the very few women majoring in Computer Science in the mid-1980s. We both went on to get PhDs in Computer Science and we’re now both faculty members at small New England colleges (although she has gone over to the dark side and is Middlebury’s Acting Dean of Curriculum). Because of the similarities in our backgrounds, it was probably a no-brainer to suggest that I add her as a friend. And, of course, I did. To complete the friendship relationship in FaceBook, however, the second party must agree to the friendship. So I went to bed Monday night without Amy in my FaceBook friend list. By the time I logged into FB Tuesday morning, however, Amy had accepted my request for friendship. What’s strange to me is how FB reported this to me. It said, “Cathie and Amy Briggs are now friends.” Now we’re friends? Despite the fact that we’ve known each other for more than 30 years, now we’re friends? As Bogost has pointed out, FB collapses time to this moment. Now is the only time that matters. This freaks me out just a little bit.

The third strange experience happened this morning. I have been on FB for just more than 36 hours so I have only dabbled in exploring the many features available. For example, I have uploaded only one picture, mostly just to see how the upload feature works. It’s a picture of Ann and I taken at a baby shower this winter. (Despite the fact that I have just joined FB, quite a few other pictures of me are there because of the addicted friends I mentioned earlier. It’s another interesting and freaky aspect of these social networks that you can “exist” on the network without even knowing it.) A friend teased me via a comment on my wall (a public space on which FB members can post comments for and about you), implying that I need to get more photos out there. Although I know the comment was meant in jest, I think it illustrates an issue concerning “immediacy,” in which users expect stuff to happen immediately. The immediacy issue is related to the issue of collapsed time in that they are both about an emphasis on now. And on FB, stuff does happen immediately. And then all your friends are immediately notified about it. Freaky.

And that leads me to the last of my current impressions about FB. I’m having significant information overload. As a user, you can control the kinds of things you are notified about via email. By default, you are notified about everything. So when someone accepts your offer of friendship, you get an email about it. When a friend changes her status, you get an email about it. When a friend writes on your wall, you get an email about it. When a friend adds a photo to her page, you get an email about it. And so on. Like I said, you can change these settings but as a new user, it’s difficult to decide what you want to get an email about and what you don’t. I’m finding it challenging to keep up with it all. This brings to mind Sturgeon’s Law, which says: “Ninety-nine percent of everything is crap.” Since I’m writing these impressions without having thought them through, that’s also what I’m thinking about this blog entry.

et cetera