Facing Up to Facebook

My friend Brad King, a journalism professor at Ball State University, makes fun of me for being such a Web and gadget geek while at the same time shunning social networking tools like Facebook. He’s got a point. I’ve written a lot about Facebook, MySpace, and their predecessors, but I’ve never wholeheartedly joined in, the way I have with most of the other digital media technologies that are the loose theme of this column. I guess I never quite saw the point. Also, though it’s probably a sign that I’m growing prematurely crotchety, I keep telling myself that that social networking is a fad, like some fashionable night club that will empty out as soon as something new opens up down the street.

Well, Facebook may still be a fad, but with 300 million users and growing, it’s a remarkably enduring one. It’s probably time for me to get used to it. On top of that, I’ve had some experiences over the last couple of weeks that have started to change my attitude about the site.

SunflowerIt started with my iPhone. Two weeks ago, as you might remember, I wrote a column about “The Best Camera.” It’s an iPhone app created by Seattle photographer Chase Jarvis as part of a cross-media campaign promoting his message that “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” The app lets you apply some intriguing digital effects to the photos you snap with the iPhone’s built-in camera. It also lets you upload your processed images directly to Facebook, where every new shot will show up on your Wall and in your friends’ news feeds.

I’ve sent a few of my Best Camera shots to my Facebook photo albums, and a truly surprising thing has happened. People have been commenting on the photos. Not a huge crowd of people, but enough to make me realize that there are Facebook users who actually pay attention to the new stuff they see every day, and that some of them care enough to leave feedback.

RhodyI don’t mean to sound naive—I know that posting and reading updates and commenting on other people’s updates are the main order of business at Facebook. The wake-up call for me was the realization that Facebook has now become what Flickr was originally supposed to be.

I’ve been a Flickr user since ancient times—back before it was part of Yahoo, when it was a funky little startup based in Vancouver and was mainly a place where people could comment on each other’s photos by decorating them with little thought-balloon captions. I’ve got thousands of photos there, and it’s going to remain my default online photo storage location. But nobody ever comments on my photos at Flickr anymore. At Facebook, by contrast, I can upload a camera-phone shot and get five comments within an hour.

What’s up with that? I thought at first that the sheer volume of photos at Flickr might be one explanation. There are so many new ones every day that my shots might just be getting lost in the crowd. But from what I’ve read, the world’s largest photo-sharing site these days is not Flickr or Photobucket or Snapfish, but Facebook itself. So there’s something else going on. And it’s probably not so hard to understand.

Your photos on Facebook attract attention and inspire your friends to comment because they come with a built-in context: you. They show up in the same feed with your status updates, your tweets, your links, your comments on other people’s stuff, your Mafia Wars hits. In other words, your photos are only a part of you’re sharing about your life. The images gain value, rather than losing it, by being part of the big social-media mix. Photos on Flickr, by contrast, inhabit a social vacuum. There’s very little context on a Flickr page; a picture posted there might as well have been taken by anyone.

So the genius of Facebook, I’m belatedly realizing, is in the racket—the same confusion of seemingly disconnected chatter that used to be exactly what bothered me about the site. If you’re browsing your Facebook news feed and you see a photo your friend posted right alongside another friend’s music recommendation and yet another friend’s account of last night’s office party, you’re probably in “networking mode” already. That mean’s you’re much more likely to stop and comment on the photo than if you’re dutifully clicking through someone’s vacation photos on Flickr. Also, to give credit where it’s due, Facebook makes it very easy to leave comments, and to comment on comments, and to let everyone know you commented, and around and around.

Foundry Works BuildingFacebook has a few other new things in its favor, too. After the most recent redesign, which got rid of much of site’s old clutter, it seems much more functional and attractive. I like the way the Wall makes updates front-and-center, Twitter style, highlighting what was always Facebook’s most interesting feature. The pandemic of annoying viral vampire-and-zombie apps seems to have ebbed. On top of all that, the service’s population of 300 million now seems to include everyone I’ve ever known since elementary school. So it’s truly the best places to keep track of all the friends and relatives I rarely get to see in person. (I have an uncle in Connecticut whom I haven’t seen since I returned to Boston from California two years ago, but we’ve communicated several times on Facebook.)

So I’m getting over my Facebook aversion. But I still feel a bit lost there. I have a feeling that I could be using my time there much more effectively—but I’m not sure how. What I’d really love is to see a few examples of people who are using their Facebook presence in creative, constructive ways.

So, I want to close with an invitation: send me links to your favorite friends on Facebook, the ones who always seem to be doing cool stuff or sending you cool links, and I’ll feature them (assuming their profiles are public) in a future column on the stars of Facebook. For personal and professional reasons, I’d be most interested in people in the Web, software, or digital media worlds, and those who are based in Xconomy’s home regions—New England, Southern California, and the Pacific Northwest. But everyone is fair game. Please post your suggestions in the comment section below or write to me at wroush@xconomy.com.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Facing Up to Facebook”

  1. Wade, I don’t look so much for creativity in my friends’ Facebook usage as I do quality. Like you, my main Facebook time is spent on my home page wall, scanning my friends’ updates. I value the people who say things I want to know, and blend the professional and the personal. (We all know the guy who does nothing but self-promote, and the gal who shares endless inane surveys and trivia.) So on that “signal to noise” ratio, I value David Cancel (Compete co-founder and former CTO). David always passes along interesting startup information and also gently paints a lovely picture of his personal interests. He’s well-informed, thoughtful, and humble–as depicted by his Facebook posts. (And I only met him once so I really do form my impressions of him from Facebook.) He’s in Boston.

    In your business, check out Rob Walker’s “Consumed” fan page. He makes excellent use of FB to preview his upcoming NYT columns, get input on subjects he’s researching, and stimulate dialogue on the things he covers (design, marketing, brands, and cultural anthropology). His is one of the few fan pages I visit daily, to check in on the conversation.