Sunday, 10 November 2013

Social Mediation

"Wait!" I hear you cry. "A post about tech on a blog called NerdTech?!"
Ridiculous, I know, but there is a reason. Last week I made an important change to the way I use technology. I thought it was quite a small thing at the time, but it's already changed my life.
First, let me ask you a question:

What is Facebook for?

I mean, really - what's its purpose? I vaguely remember a time when I used to know the answer, but these days I'm not sure there's an answer at all. Facebook isn't really for anything any more; Facebook just is.

If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have told you that Facebook's purpose was to keep in touch with friends. A place to see what they were doing and thinking, and to chat about it in their comments or on their wall. For an antisocial troglodyte like myself, it helped me feel connected. No, more than that - it kept me connected. Maybe it could be used another way, but this is certainly how I used it and it seemed to be designed with that in mind. The whole interface was based around making statuses as visible and accessible as possible.
Compare that to how Facebook works now. It's almost impossible to hunt down basic text statuses in the sprawling mass of my news feed. It's all pictures and links and videos and bloody Candy Crunch invitations. Statuses are the least visible thing on the page because they take up minimal space and they don't have graphics attached. You have to physically search through this mess to find out what your friends are up to - something which used to be so simple and integral to the site. It no longer serves its purpose.

Maybe - maybe - this wouldn't be such a problem if Facebook had found a new purpose instead, and turned from one kind of tool into another. But it didn't. The closest thing it has to a purpose is still to keep people in touch, but now it's really bad at it.
If you squint a little, it almost looks like Facebook has become a photo gallery instead. It's certainly more set up for that kind of use - but that's not actually how people use it. I counted for a couple of days and, while images make up roughly two thirds of my feed, less than half of those are actually photos, and many of those photos are "selfies" or pictures of pets, which barely count. The rest are... well, they're infuriating nonsense, aren't they. We all know it. And they were driving me away.

Two years ago I joined Twitter. I only did it as a means for job-hunting and news, and I never thought I'd tweet very much. I use social media to talk to people I know, not to shout hopelessly in an endless void of strangers. But lately I've found myself choosing Twitter over Facebook. As I've slowly drifted away from one I've moved towards the other. Twitter still values the text-based status updates I want from social media, and I like being a part of that.
I barely post to Facebook any more, except to share this blog and, ironically, to complain about Facebook itself. I just don't want to be involved in the ugly chaos I always find there. Turns out I'd rather shout into a void than a deafening storm.

Last weekend, I finally snapped.

It started with Bitstrips. I logged into Facebook and the page was flooded with these terrible, unfunny cartoons. Where the hell did they suddenly come from? Doesn't matter; they invaded over night, they were everywhere, and they made me want to burn things.
I have no idea if people are still posting them or if they were just an overnight fad, because I blocked them almost immediately. But it was too late; the damage was done. I have never hated a website as much as I did that morning.

So, in some kind of blood-rage, I retreated to Twitter for a few days to recover. That's when things got worse.
Two days later, Twitter suddenly made all its images visible all the time. Where, before, you would have to click a tweet to see an attached image, now there is always a preview. If you don't use Twitter, you're probably imagining a little thumbnail of some kind - but no, these are massive pixel-hogging monsters. Four of these previews takes up the entire screen.
In one quick moment, my Twitter stream became my Facebook feed. Half the space, if not half the posts, were taken up with images - and I knew it was only going to get worse. I was still so angry at Facebook, and now its replacement was heading the same way. This was the beginning of the end.

Slowly, though, I convinced myself that it wasn't as bad as I thought; that I could live with a few George Takei pictures on my screen. I slept on it, sure that it wouldn't annoy me so much in the morning. I was wrong.
The next day there were Bitstrips on Twitter.

I wanted to throw my laptop across the room! It was already everything I feared and hated - the e-cards of ladies in big hats couldn't be far off. I couldn't take it. I'd had enough. I wanted out - out of these social networks and everything that tied me to them.
In a moment of rage and madness, I uninstalled every single app on my phone. Why I punished my phone over my laptop, or why I went so far, I don't know - I wasn't really thinking straight. I wanted some of them gone so I got rid of everything... I'm sure it made sense at the time.

Since then, I have reinstalled a 3G usage monitor, a file-manager, a word-processor (to write these blogs), one game, and a web-browser. That's all. And, incredibly, this has totally changed how I use social media.
Because of course I couldn't stay away. As angry as I was, and as awful as Facebook has become at keeping people in touch, it is still my only link to many of my friends. But, without any apps, I've been viewing them through Opera Mini - a browser designed to be as simple as possible. It's so simple, in fact, that it can't display the more recent versions of many websites - instead running clumsy ancient sites from before the rise of iPhone and Android.

The old Facebook site doesn't support plugins (so messages from Farmville or Bitstrips don't appear), it doesn't add graphics to links, and images only appear as tiny thumbnails. It's designed with an emphasis on text and statuses - easy to locate updates without having to wade through a sea of memes. It is exactly what I want from Facebook.
The old Twitter site is a lot less old and still runs a lot like the app, but it doesn't show pictures and that's great. As the site becomes an unfocused mess - as it will now that it's publicly owned - I'll still only be able to see text. That's enough for me.
Already, I find myself using Facebook far more. I know what's going on in people's lives again, and I want to be involved. I've commented and posted more times this past week than I have in months. It feels useful again!

The silly part is that, even though I'm using these sites more, I'm actually checking them much less. It's another unexpected benefit of these older websites. I'm a completist - slightly OCD - and until now I've had to read every single status update since the last time I checked. I just had to - the page kept scrolling and so did I. On Facebook this meant I couldn't help going through all the crap on my feed, much as it was slowly driving me crazy, and on Twitter it meant I could only follow about twenty-five people, otherwise I'd be reading new updates forever.
These older mobile sites, though, don't keep scrolling. Twitter only displays twenty tweets, and Facebook only shows seven - and, somehow, that cancels out my OCD. I reach the bottom of the page and I can stop. It means I'm no longer obsessively checking my phone all the time, and when I do I don't do it for long. I have so much more time now, especially in the morning, that it's actually depressing. It also means I can follow more people on Twitter - I can actually start using it like a normal person.

There's no downside to this! I went crazy for a few moments and, somehow, it saved me from all the problems I have with social media. Stripping back the extra features of these sites - making them simple and text-based again - gives them back their purpose, and a reason to use them. They are for something.
I've actually stopped using Twitter on computers now, because the pictures are so horrible and because the compulsion to keep scrolling and read every tweet is still there. Facebook's less of a problem because it's such a different experience that it's actually kind of funny. I can laugh at how much rubbish is on my PC screen, knowing that I no longer have to put up with it.
Online-Matthew is a much happier guy.

He'd be even happier if you all used Google+, though.