Mar. 16, 2009

Posted by in Facebook, General | No comments

Getting Lost in the Lifestreams

Recent updates to Facebook have caused me to think further about a few ideas that have been in the back of my mind for some time. Rather than post my usual security analysis, I decided to try and record a few observations about trends in social networking and hopefully start a conversation about them. Specifically, I have noticed a shift from static profiles to dynamic feeds and a focus on shorter interactions. These thoughts are still rather undeveloped, but hopefully they will make some sense.

Facebook’s previous redesign took users from a primarily static profile to a primarily dynamic one. That’s not to say the old profiles never changed, but the changes tended to be subtler over time. A new profile picture, a new comment from a friend on the “wall,” perhaps a new favorite movie. The profile in general evolved over time at a slower pace than one particular section of it, the mini-feed. The mini-feed was the stock ticker at the bottom of the screen, giving quick highlights of the latest activity involving the person. The rest of the profile was the news broadcast, taking more time (and space) to tell the story or provide context.

The redesign merged the dynamic mini-feed with the most active parts of the profile to create a unified feed which took over the profile. Less active components, such as favorite movies or quotes, could still be accessed – but they were treated as a separate, less-interesting part of the profile that could be referenced if needed on occasion. The new central feed still used a few visual cues to distinguish types of stories. Status updates were generally short and frequent, so they were featured in a different manner from the larger blocks of text that friends would write for the less frequent wall posts.

Now, Facebook has introduced a revamped home page, and modified profile pages to match. The previous News Feed certainly provided dynamic updates on friends, but it was not a true, real-time “feed.” It often spanned large intervals of time, and included stories thought to be of interest to the user. In other words, the News Feed summarized. It helped provide an overview or the “big picture” of friends’ activity. The new News Feed, by contrast, emulates Twitter’s real-time feeds. A user with many active friends may now only see updates from the past hour when they first load their home page. The Highlights section on the right side of the page helps provide some of the broader context the older News Feed attempted to serve, albeit in a much more limited fashion.

Facebook’s revamped feeds no longer include the visual cues for distinguishing stories. On a profile, the only difference between a status update and a wall post is the name of the person who wrote the comment. The feeds now treat individual stories fairly equally; each item is simply another drop in the river of updates. The new Publisher box reenforces this perspective – it beckons a user simply to write, not write a status update, write a note, or write a wall post.

In this respect, Facebook has become much more similar to Twitter. Each tweet is presented as any other tweet, and users employ tweets in a variety of ways, such as status updates or discussing technology issues. Many bloggers now refer to Twitter, FriendFeed, and similar sites by the apt name of lifestreaming services. The latest incarnation of Facebook could easily be categorized as lifestreaming also.

The rise of the dynamic seems to be quite a trend on modern social networking sites, with feeds becoming nearly ubiquitous. Yet the lack of a more static profile removes an aspect of a user’s experience. No longer is their an anchor for the user’s identity – a central place that declares, “This is who I am,” giving an overview of the user’s interests, activities, and personality. Instead, a user is defined by action: “This is what I do.”

Consequently, we lose the big picture. Feeds by nature do not summarize. They rarely provide an overview. Previous incarnations of user profiles, such as on forum sites or the old Facebook, did include feeds. But they were smaller segments to give a snapshot of user actions – such as the last few forum posts or the Facebook mini-feed. These were real-time sections that contributed to the overall presentation. Other aspects of the profile were much steadier, helping provide a more meaningful identity.

Suppose I haven’t talked to my friend Jane in quite a while and want to catch up. If I visit her social networking profile and see quick thoughts of hers and short messages from friends covering the last few days, I will have little understanding of her life at this stage. I will probably investigate for further clues of the big picture, such as what she’s doing for education and work, recent major events, photographs of the last few months. These help me to piece together figuratively where Jane’s life is at the moment.

Lifestreaming may be about sharing thoughts (e.g. Facebook’s new question, “What’s on your mind?”), but it can often accommodate laziness in relationships. As my life becomes busier and my friends increase in number, it becomes more difficult to engage in meaningful conversation with each person. But now I can broadcast my life in compact updates that friends are free to follow. I become a celebrity of sorts, letting fans track my thoughts and activities throughout the day without my answering any fan mail.

Conversation does occur on services such as Twitter, but the brevity befits our culture’s increasingly short attention span. Short messages have their place, but they are becoming the central dialogue in social networking. Previous versions of Facebook at least made more of an effort to distinguish status updates (brief, more frequent, purposeful), wall posts (medium length, occasional, conversational), and notes (longer, less frequent, kaleidoscopic). If the majority of our social networking reduces to exchanging 140-character tidbits, how can we truly connect with or understand the lives of our friends?

Obviously these thoughts do not cover all uses or users of Twitter, Facebook, and other such sites. Many people use Twitter for business purposes, not relating to friends. Short messages are well-suited to many casual conversations. But I am concerned by (1) the lack of static, big picture components to modern social networking, and (2) the reduction of most communication to quick, simple exchanges. Identity seems to be turning into a fluid concept, and social networking seems to be less about engaging in real, meaningful conversation with friends.

Granted, the information overload of our time would naturally tempt us to reduce the time spent on any task. Yet time investments will always be necessary in deeper human relationships. If only a social networking service would help us reenforce such a perspective and use technology to encourage such investments while removing hinderances to keeping in touch. The ephemeral has its place, but we dare not lose the bigger picture of who we are and how we relate to each other on deeper levels. Of course, this may require a change in mindset as much as a change in technology – how often do we ask how people are doing without expecting an honest answer?

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