Long Face(book)

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

I must be getting old. I can’t get the hang of Facebook – what’s been described as a revolution in social networking, online – at all. Last year, hardly a day went by without an email invitation to join someone on Facebook or a similar site, and I did give a stab at it, logging on and partaking of this hyped-up part of the web.

But I didn’t see the point of it – what was there to do, other than to approve another batch of people who might fit my profile? And then what? So as the year wore on and more invitations came in, I rapidly hit the delete button, rather than waste time on something that seemed, well, superfluous.

On the first Monday in January, the first invitation of the new year arrived, from an associate at a leading hotel in Nusa Dua – not the usual invite via site, but rather a personal email wishing me a happy new year and asking, by the way, “Do you have Facebook? Kindly share with me.”

Groan, I felt, as I replied Happy New Year, and then… OK, I’ll give it another shot, and invited the sender to my cobweb-gathering Facebook page. But then, my New Year’s resolution – not that I do them, as I’ve little to improve. Really! – is to be more social, as in attending more events, as in the slew of real-world invites I normally reply to as “Busy that evening, sorry.”

I ended this Facebook day wishing I hadn’t bothered, and found myself asking yet again what this “wildly popular” site was all about. It’s a con. No wonder it’s still deeply in debt.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore the internet. I think it’s the best invention bar none. Well, apart from the lightbulb, and electricity in general, and the toaster, and sliced bread, and … you get it. But I just don’t see the sell behind Facebook and other social-networking sites. I prefer to do my networking in real life, and anyway, if I wanted to converse with others, and I do, I do it via a messenger like Yahoo! – in real time. Or meet people in person. Imagine that.

It amazes me that people get caught up in hype and because it’s deemed to be the Next Big Thing and Totally Cool throw away their senses and become a lemming, even if that means jumping over the proverbial cliff with the rest of those rat-like creatures.

Years ago I attended the opening of a new play in Dublin by one of Ireland’s premiere playwrights. The story was a bore, awful, but at the interval, people I spoke to said it was the best thing ever, and the next day, reviews in the papers said scribes left the performance with their “pens dripping in gold.” The play moved to Broadway, and bombed, closing after a couple of days. A total bust. Yet people were caught up in the hype and dared not speak bad of what they saw for fear they might be labeled uneducated or unappreciative of the arts. It’s insecurity-based pretentiousness that morphs into a pack-like mentality that’s based on bull.

Example: In an interview broadcast on CNN the other week, a US Republican said that after the party’s resounding defeat in the presidential election last November, he was going to reach out to the people using non-traditional means, like Facebook, where he smugly said he has “4,000 friends.” Really? You have 4,000 friends on that site, and you’re all chatting and gathering around all the time? Tripe, by the truckload. Reality check: You’ve got 4,000 (if that’s the true figure) tiny pictures or avatars on your page, with a few small-talk messages about whatever, every now and then. And that’s the extent of it.

While incoming prez Barack Obama owes a large chunk of his success to his campaign’s internet savvy, this Republican’s comment is just puerile.

I can’t abide hype that’s based on evaporation, especially a ditzy idea. And so I set about researching and found out that since its inception in 2004, Facebook, owned by American computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg, who started the site while at Harvard University, has received at least US$346 million in venture capital and subsequent investment, including $246 million for a 1.6-percent stake from Microsoft (in a late bid, desperate to get aboard), the software pioneer that has entirely missed the internet boat.

More money poured in, incredibly. Yet the site continued to post annual losses of millions of dollars – just what were they spending all that mammoth cash on, besides servers and staff? Then there were reports, and rumors, that Facebook was valued at around $8 billion. That’s insane.

I searched Facebook for signs of revenue – advertising, its only source – and for a while found none at all. And then, local ads about kissing teddy bears. Is this what a purported multibillion-dollar empire is built upon?

The first internet bubble burst precisely because of propaganda like this: the Next Big Thing. Now we have Web 2.0, a phrase coined by those who would rather forget the predecessor but remain enthralled by the online possibilities, but the cant is still there.

Give me substance over hyperbole any day. For now, I’ll do my networking in the non-web world.

Postscript: Just as I finished writing this column, a friend I had invited earlier in the day visited my Facebook page and said, “Hi, man … long time not see you, nice to meet you at Facebook and nice diving photo.” And a college friend in Ireland who I hadn’t heard from in years said: “Finally signed up to Facebook and found myself typing in your name! It’s been a long, long time.”

So there’s something in it after all, this Facebook thing. Just less of the hype, please.


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