Unfriend me not in the time of old age

April 18th, 2012  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Lately I’ve been thinking of Facebook and Twitter as a sort of digital Pompeii — evidence of peoples’ past activities will persist, barely-comprehensible and frozen in time, even after the posters have stopped writing about the great runs they just had, the hilarious and poignant antics of their kids, the dated pop-culture references they share with you, and so on. Unlike Twitter’s firehose, which privileges novelty above all, Facebook’s interface calls out prior events and actively encourages you to participate and interact in certain ways, which can lead to points of surprising emotional resonance.

For example, Facebook sometimes reminds me to send a message to a deceased friend on his birthday. I usually react to these sorts of notifications with a mixture of renewed thankfulness for my friend’s life, including all the memories that have occasion to surface once more, and renewed sadness at their present absence. It merely traces along scars, though, to receive an automated suggestion that my friends who have gone to their rest are good candidates for demotion to the “Acquaintances” list because I don’t interact with them all that often these days.

Helpful reminders from social media

August 2nd, 2011  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I understand that a lot of people use Facebook messages instead of email. I think they’re wrong to do so except when there is no other option, but I am aware that this practice is somewhat common. I also understand that a lot of people need Facebook to remind them of birthdays and other events. Again, this is sad, but it’s an expected consequence of the social network information firehose.

What I can’t understand is the idea that someone might need Facebook to remind him of his own anniversary, or that a Facebook message might be an appropriate way to commemorate the occasion, as this notification seems to indicate:

Good grief

So the first year is paper, the second is cotton, the third is linen, and the tenth is, apparently, a “thanks for the add.” I doubt that most of the adults I know would prefer a Facebook message to an anniversary card, gift, or personal greeting (since, after all, one typically cohabits with one’s spouse), but maybe we’re just behind the curve. Indeed, I suspect if Facebook continues to grow in popularity, our wedding and anniversary traditions will be completely revolutionized. Not only will physical gifts be replaced by “pokes,” “zombie attacks,” and “virtual pies,” but the long-abandoned practice of giving dowries will make a return. Fortunately, cattle are probably less expensive in Farmville than in real life.

Facebook and the appearance of omniscience

March 18th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

Socrates is not amused by your technology

John Gruber links to Dave Pell’s “My Head is in the Cloud,” which is an amusing reflection on how Pell has abdicated his responsibility for remembering things like phone numbers and birthdays to services like Facebook and Twitter — and on how these services create the illusion that the information they have is exhaustive and all equally important.

I’ve thought about this in the past — most recently when considering my disappointment that my once-notable capacity for remembering birthdays is meaningless when everyone else uses Facebook. However, I suspect that this is as good a time as any to revisit Socrates’ indictment of writing as recounted in Plato’s Phaedrus, which I’ve jocularly referred to in the context of the TiVo’s deleterious effect on concentration:

And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

There are some things to like about social media websites like Facebook and the new memoryless regime that they have inaugurated. In particular, on each of my (irregular and infrequent) visits to Facebook, I appreciate the fact that I essentially have a virtual watercooler featuring both people I see every day and people I haven’t seen for twenty years; I also enjoy the facility with which one can (superficially) keep in touch with old friends who might otherwise be inaccessible (i.e. those who aren’t willing to sign up for their own flickr, twitter, and weblog accounts). However, I’m all too familiar with Pell’s observation that these information firehoses create the illusion that all data are equally important, overwhelming us with irrelevant trivia while leaving us to miss things we might care about because they aren’t represented in a reminder tab somewhere. I don’t believe that these services have turned me and my friends into “tiresome company,” but the notion of being “hearers of many things [who] will have learned nothing” strikes a little close to home.

On Facebook usernames

June 12th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Like almost all sophisticated and clever people, I am delighted every time Facebook announces a new, easy-to-abuse feature that might at its best enable some of its users to become sharecroppers of a trivially larger chunk of the AOL of the oughts. If you’d prefer to see a rather dimmer view, then you’ll want to read Anil Dash, who wrote an amusing article speculating on the immediate aftermath of the “user-specified URL” feature rollout on Facebook; it is chock-full of goodness like this:

LinkedIn posts a thinly-veiled but very smart update on their company blog that happens to mention in passing that they’ve had friendly usernames as an option for URLs for years, and that it’s more likely you want to show your professional profile to the world as the first Google result for your name. The post omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on LinkedIn.

(via Ben Brown)

Remaindered thoughts

February 26th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here are a few things I’ve long meant to post but haven’t for some reason or another. I still have a lot of drafts, but some of them are far too untimely to post now (the entry about Ronaldo probably falls under this category, actually). These posts are headed with their original intended titles and are in chronological order.

On genre (5/2008)

Consider this: Grand Theft Auto IV ends with a wedding, but it is not a comedy.

A minor usability note (7/2008)


“Status updates” — as made ubiquitous by web applications like Twitter and Facebook — demand brevity and thus encourage a writing style heavy on sentence fragments. Here’s a problem: the type of fragment most appropriate depends on the medium, because any “update” will be displayed in some context.

Facebook assumes that you are the subject of a sentence, and even goes so far as to supply the copula for you if you are entering an update through the web. Although the interface asks you a question (“What are you doing?”), Twitter users generally provide self-contained sentences that do not address what one is doing. Since I typically avoid the Facebook web interface, I relay my Twitter updates to Facebook, which probably makes them slightly less comprehensible than they are already. It would be better, I guess, if the Twitter-to-Facebook gateway provided some other clue that my twitter updates were not intended to complete a sentence starting with “William” or “William is.”

Ronaldo, slavery, and abuses of language (7/2008)

23-year old Cristiano Ronaldo is good enough at soccer that he makes £125,000 a week (ca. $542.8 trillion US) and is incapable of appearing in public without an Iberian swimsuit model at his side. (It’s not an entirely rosy picture — he does have to play for Man United.) Unfortunately for him, he is so doing as part of a long contract, which, like most contracts, restricts his ability to move to another team at will.

Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, likens Ronaldo’s apparently onerously-long contract to the lot of a “modern-day slave.” Ronaldo, displaying all of the perspective that one might expect from a young man who is paid absurdly to kick a ball around and lives in a world that doesn’t regularly encounter forced slavery, agrees.

I guess if commentators in the US can apply “fascist” or “Stalinist” appellations to American politicians who have never organized mass genocides or purged their staff from history, then it’s difficult to get particularly exercised about someone who could pay cash for a new primary residence every week comparing himself to a child sold to a brothel for a pack of cigarettes.

Difficulty and worthiness (12/2008)

Longtime readers of this site are probably aware of the most popular — in terms of comments — thing I’ve ever written. (If you aren’t, perhaps you should take a break to see how one might finance a college education, and then come back when you’re done.) I have previously lamented the lack of reading comprehension exhibited by nearly all of my benighted correspondents on this matter, but would like to focus now on a theme that has appeared ever more aggressively in recent comments. I am referring to the idea that something is worth doing — and, moreover, worth demanding spectators for — merely because it is difficult or expensive, or is likely to result in injuries, or whatever. This seems to me to be plainly false, but since it is such a popular claim, I would like to debunk it here by way of several analogies:

Downhill shopping cart racing certainly can result in bruises and lacerations and probably requires a grueling practice schedule. However, most of the practitioners are hoboes and most of the spectators are misanthropes and the audience of MTV’s Jackass. But I repeat myself.

Consider the early serial music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, which extended the serial tone row idea to all aspects of performance, so that each note had a different dynamic level, articulation, or whatever. This music is probably hard to write (especially, as Stockhausen was at the time, without a computer) and it is definitely hard to perform. However, I have a very hard time recommending that anyone invest the time in learning how to perform these works (or in attending a performance). Furthermore, I suspect that efforts to reproduce this idiom would be ultimately unsatisfying, as with any musical language that hurts listeners or otherwise sounds like yelling.

Other example pursuits also come to mind, but they hit rather closer to home.