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Entries in social networking (2)

Wednesday
Jan142009

Facebook friendship

Time to revisit what stills seems to be the social network du jour, Facebook.

Thanks to Facebook, I am now 'in touch' with a hell of a lot of people that I haven't seen in a very, very long time. Old school pals, former band mates, general weirdos I don't know particularly well - the list goes on. There's even the odd ex-girlfriend in there, and, hardy har, some normal ones too (if you're reading this in Facebook, you can try to work out which category you belong to).

I'm not sure why, but I tend to accept most friend requests, and befriend most people I see popping up as 'somebody I might know'. It's probably fair to say that I am a textbook example of what is known as Facebook Sluticus - that weird specimen that adds literally anyone, including a friend's friend's milkman, as a Facebook friend. Part of that, no doubt, is due to the fact that I am just nosey about your life, and I want to sell you a CD. (Sorry if I've just devalued our Facebook friendship, dear reader, but there you go).

But despite being reacquainted with all these figures from my past, I don't really have a relationship to speak of with most of them. I occasionally comment on somebody's status, or write a bit of crap on their wall, but that's about it. With one or two exceptions, the only Facebook friends I ever see in real life are the ones I hang out with anyway.

That's not to say for a moment that I don't want to see my 'virtual' set of friends. It's just that, well, it never seems to happen. Plans are made to meet up, but we never get round to it; somebody's pet rabbit dies, they bail out, we don't catch up. I'm not sure why this cancellation nearly always occurs - unless my Facebook friends are trying to tell me something - as everybody involved always seems very keen on meeting up. It just never seems to happen.

I'm not alone in observing this: lots of other Facebook users I've spoken to have described Facebook friendship in exactly the same way. The phenomenon generally consists of getting back in touch with somebody that you lost contact with (and being very pleased to be reacquainted with them), only to then never really meet up, or to have very little contact with them afterwards - online or offline.

The sentence I usually hear straight after this description of Facebook friendship is this: "Oh well, you lose contact with people for a reason, don't you?". And that sentence is usually followed up with an implication that the reason contact was lost was because the friendship wasn't all that anyway.

I don't necessarily agree with the idea that you lose contact with people because they're a pain in the ass. I like many of the Facebook friends I never see just as much as those 'normal' friends that I see all the time. But I do agree with the idea that you lose contact with people for specific reasons. In my case, there are two reasons: geography, and lack of time.

With regard to geography, there are plenty of Facebook friends who I would like to go for a pint with. But they are scattered around the globe. And even when the Facebook friends in question are London-based...well, London's so big that a round trip to see some of them can take three hours.

The other reason I've lost contact with (sometimes dear) friends is because the older you get, the less time you seem to have. Part of that is down to the fact that as you age, you tend to acquire more responsibilities every year (kids, high-maintenance partner, more work - delete as appropriate) and less time for that pint with, say, the Facebook friend. And time seems more precious, because psychologically, the years seem to fly by so much faster. An old work colleague of mine (who incidentally I've yet to encounter on Facebook) maintains that this is due to the "telescopic effect of ageing" - numerically, every year is a smaller fraction of your life to date, and is perceived as being shorter as a result. Anyway, it certainly feels as though the closer you get to clog-popping time, the more everything in your life starts competing more heavily for your minutes...and my guess is that the Facebook friends who you haven't seen in aeons get pushed down the priority list in favour of a curry and Newsnight.

Interestingly, if geography and "time-poverty" are the drivers behind friendship loss, they are the engine of Facebook friendship gain - and explain, to an extent, the success of this social network. Facebook is so good at reunfications (however superficial) precisely because it is accessible globally, and because it saves people time: it would take ages to ring everybody up to see what they're doing. Why bother when it all comes up in a news feed?

Facebook certainly satisfies my curiosity: it is intriguing to see what the class babe looks like ten years on, or to see if the school bully's children look resemble him. Or if that pet rabbit makes it through the night. On paper, though, there's lots of reasons to dislike it - it's clearly a nosey parker's paradise; it trivialises friendship; it was designed for advertisers as much as for individuals...

...But do I like it? I don't know why, but I do. Maybe it's because without it, chances are you probably wouldn't have read this.

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Monday
Jun252007

Facebook - the new Myspace?

Facebook - the new Myspace?
Facebook really seems to be 'on the up' at the moment. People I know who would never have set up a Myspace page now have a page on Facebook (including, incredibly, my girlfriend). Why is this?

I think there are four main reasons, to do with the new 'acceptibility' of social networking, Facebook's interface, its general trendiness right now and the rise of broadband.

Acceptibility of Social Networking
Until fairly recently, I think that most people approached sites like Myspace and Facebook with a degree of trepidation - either because they perceived them as being havens for weirdos (and lets face it, they are) or internet dating sites (which have less of a stigma attached to them these days, but a lot of people still don't want to be seen resorting to to the net to find love). Increasingly however, social networking sites have become part of the internet mainstream, and people are less scared to use them. Facebook seems to have come along at just the right time in this respect - it's the new kid on the block just when social networking has been deemed by society as an acceptable thing to engage in.

Facebook's interface
Facebook's interface probably also has a lot to do with the sudden explosion in its popularity. Firstly, Facebook pages are arguably less 'threatening' than Myspace pages, because they are not (yet) so customisable. A lot of people personalise their Myspace pages to the extent that they become offputting, either due to the nature of the content or the fact that the content (multiple images, videos, tracks) takes so long to download. Secondly, the Facebook system makes it extremely easy for people to scan their address books for people they know who already use Facebook; consequently, more and more people start using Facebook to communicate with their friends, in the process generating a reason to return to it.

Facebook is trendy
As mentioned above, Facebook is the new kid on the block, and new kids on the block usually get a lot of interest - for five minutes at least! Facebook is, quite simply, trendy; and when you combine trendiness with the "viralness" of the whole social networking medium, you have a potent formula for success.

Broadband
More and more people are getting broadband - at last count 55% of UK households had broadband access (and this is a figure that's rising). People now have the capability and desire to upload and share large content (videos, songs, images) in a way that was hitherto impossible or very difficult - and social networking sites provide an ideal medium for this. Again, Facebook is in the right place at the right time - it's the social networking site du choix at a time when more and more people are signing up to broadband.

Which is better, though?
I think that given all the above, it's easy to see why Facebook is on the up: it's a good product and trendy, operating in a 'viral' medium at a time when social networking and broadband usage are on the up - a bit of a no-brainer. But is it better than Myspace?

If I had my musician's hat on, I'd say no. Myspace is currently better for musicians for two main reasons - the song player is dead easy use, and probably more importantly, Myspace is associated more with new music. Consequently, a lot of music industry people use it to search for new acts, and music fans use it to 'try before they buy.' Also, whilst the level of customisation that Myspace offers can lead to some terrible, terrible pages, it is nice to have that facility - I can, for example, 'brand' my site in a way that matches my website and other marketing material. The key thing is to be sensible about customisation - don't overload the user with so much content that they can't access the page.

Also, from a 'selling stuff' point of view, Myspace is arguably better - because Myspace lets its users put lines of HTML code into their pages, organisations can encourage their 'friends' to put banner ads for products and services directly into their pages - at no cost. This arguably works better for the not-for-profit sector than big business, because people are more likely to identify with a cause than a particular product (and consequently want to promote it). The two main types of banners that I've seen on Myspace which individuals have put on their pages are ads for charities and for bands, both of which tend to evoke stronger feelings and affiliations than say, Fairy Liquid.

But as a social networking user, I'd argue that Facebook has more to offer. It's generally simpler to operate, and the news feeds that it provides let you 'keep tabs' on what your friends are up to. An example of this is the nice little 'status update' feature - a one-liner that you can broadcast to your friends, telling them what mood you're in, whether you've just had a cup of tea etc. I suppose this has a slightly sinister side to it too - your privacy goes out the window a bit, although in theory you can choose what exactly you share with people. In practice however, it's a godsend for the obsessed...and the site hasn't earned the nickname 'Stalkbook' for nothing. But it is fun.

For me though, there's one thing which makes me infinitely prefer Facebook to Myspace: it isn't owned by Rupert Murdoch. Yet.

Chris Singleton now has a Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2348827711. Feel free to join it.

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