Nach langmonatiger Abstinenz kehrt Carlito zurück, unser Mann im Land der unbegrenzten Unmöglichkeiten. In dieser Ausgabe des Hudsonblicks nähert sich Carlito einer Definition des Begriffs “Freund” am Beispiel von … Facebook.
Why doesn’t he want tons of friends?
Why doesn’t he want tons of friends?
-Dead Kennedies, Insight
137. That”™s the number of people on my “Friend List”. That’s what everyone looks at on a Facebook profile the first time that they see it. It’s like comparing salaries. Then there’s some involuntary reaction like, “Oh, poor fellow isn’t working very hard at this. He’s hardly any friends at all!”, or “What a whore, I’ll bet he doesn’t know half of those people!” And then maybe you scroll through looking for anyone you might pick off to add to your own. It’s all part of how Facebook has grown, and propagated, and connected millions of people. Like everyone, I think that my number of friends is about the perfect number. It indicates both tasteful restraint and genuine popularity. 137 is a good number. Or, it was.
Designers of complex systems like computer programs have a notion called ‘encapsulation’. This means that a system only knows enough about another system to interact with it predictably, through established protocols. All of the sordid details, the miles of spaghetti logic, the hamster wheel, stay hidden inside, so they can be denormalized, refactored, or completely replaced without disrupting the interface with the rest of the world. Encapsulation.
I can remember the first failure of encapsulation I encountered with my Facebook profile. When I initially filled in my contact information, I included a number of obsolete email addresses so I could be found if someone used them to search for me. To prevent anyone else from trying to use them, I finagled the Facebook privacy settings so they would not be visible on my profile. A slightly hacky thing to do, but it seemed to work OK.
Some months later, I checked my profile, and lo! The defunct addresses were now fully visible. Unexpectedly, my interface to the world now included defunct email addresses. Encapsulation had been violated. What made it worse, this was an unexpected violation of encapsulation. It’s one thing to intentionally do something stupid, and be willing to deal with the consequences, but another to be exposed to the consequences because of a failure of expectations. In this case, the expectation was that when Facebook said that something was private, it would be private. Not as serious as, say, suddenly revealing every message you’ve ever sent, but still jarring.
I”™m trying to send a message to all 137 people on my Friend List, and I”™ve discovered that in Facebook this is actually kind of a pain. The interface only allows you to mail 20 people at a time. And the list shows something like 30 at a time, so you don’t even end up with just n/20 messages. More like n/10. But I”™m about to commit to the final solution, and I think that the least I can do is to let everyone know that it”™s nothing personal.
Recent policy changes to Facebook have added some tidbits to your public profile that once upon a time could be made private, or visible only to friends: gender, hometown, your profile picture, what pages you subscribe to, these are now all publicly visible. One can debate the relative merits of sharing this information (‘There”™s a page for THAT?’), but it’s important to note that this was information that, previously, might have been hidden. And would now, suddenly, be visible to everyone, regardless of your previous settings. Expectations. Encapsulation.
Deactivating your account is one possible reaction. This is an extremely mild step to take on Facebook. Try it! You can log right back in again. Your friends will still be there. Your message wall will still be there. Your little sim-farm. It’s as if you never left. The usefulness of deactivating is that your account will not be visible to others while you are deactivated. For that time, you cease to exist. But it will all come back out again when you log back in, and while you’re logged in, until you deactivate again, infusing that period of time with a paranoid itch if you”™re not happy with the privacy settings that are available to you.
The steps involved to remove a friend from your Friend List are very intuitive. Click on the X box, confirm that you are “disconnecting”, and it is done. It is not a chore. To the contrary, I’m finding that each disconnect is a giddy release. One after another. Confirm, confirm, confirm. Satisfaction with this solution builds as I dispatch each one. Out loud, I flippantly bid them adios, sayonara, auf wiedersehen. Finally, I reach what I knew I was headed for, “Friends: 0″.
Until this last security update, my friend list was private. That is, unlike these attention whores with 500 or 1,000 friends who want everyone to know how many people know them, I took my Friend List off of my profile. Once upon a time, it was possible to keep a specific group of friends from seeing your Friend List. I imagine this feature existed so your mom didn’t have to see the rough crowd that you’d fallen in with. To shelter your good, church-going neighbors from your college pot dealer. Again, maybe it was a bit of a hack when I made everyone unable to see the Friend List. It was something I felt strongly about.
The condolence letters start coming in before I”™m even zeroed out. Surprisingly, after you de-friend everyone, you’re still on Facebook. I know that that”™s completely logical, but after the catharsis of reading the rolls of the dead, it’s just surprising. You’re still in all the groups you joined, you still get news alerts from pages you’re a fan of, and you still receive messages from all the people you just blew off. “Why, Carlito?” they ask, “Why have you forsaken us?”
It would be easy to blame it on security issues, on the persistent presence of bugs and features that expose and propagate information to friends and friends-of-friends in sometimes unexpected ways. But that’s all very selfish. I must give the real reason. Love. I had to de-friend my friends to be their friend.
In trying to explain the new open-ness that Facebook users are experiencing, the CEO of the company tried to convince us that openness was what all the cool kids were doing. In the quote heard “˜round the world, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that’s evolved over time.” If we ignore the demagoguery of forcing a social practice into effect and then calling it an accepted norm, this statement does say something worth thinking about. Once we’ve erased all the lines, opened all the doors, put everything we are into the light of day, what then, really, is a friend?
In this context, a confidant, a person in which to confide, to trust, is completely meaningless. Keep my secret or don’t, it doesn’t even make sense to think about. Without the layers which otherwise separate us, trust is meaningless. We tailor the amount, the type of information we present, and offer a handshake as strong as the one we receive. What remains of ‘friend’ without these nuances? If the Web 2.0 model is to be believed, the excoriated shell of ‘friend’ is ‘subscriber’. It is not about being an active listener who can be confided in, but about consuming information that is publicly, impersonally broadcast. Like TV. We are all reality show actors, competing for attention. It is a relationship based on entertainment.
Friend 2.0. Maybe this isn”™t what you signed up for. As Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas asks with indignation and growing anger, “Let me understand this cause, you know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?”
Yes. Yes you are.