Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Tangled Web

Clever Shakespeare reference, yes? Well I just presume to scribble about the Internet, and specifically Facebook. Facebook’s initial public offering—the drama!—brought on this urge to opine.

The build up to that IPO caught me. I don’t like Facebook, which made any misstep by the company, and with luck any train wreck, entertaining. When Ford cancelled advertising on Facebook, my wish was fulfilled. Not that Facebook could not weather the blow, just that something had occurred to diminish the surge of excitement for the stock.

The small family of Internet bullies—Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple—leaves us all weary, I’m sure. We want their services, but their intent directive to extract from us becomes more burdensome as times goes by. We have to put up with some of this crap, but everyone, and every thing, are within limits, as Charles Olson noted.

I used to think of Microsoft as a sort of evil. I do not want to overextend the idea, but its presence has been heavy. I have a more relaxed view now, because of the company’s ability to stumble and barely get out of its own way. Amazon smells like Walmart, something I would like to avoid. Google seems earnest but somehow autistic. I mean, Google has grand ideas and the ability to innovate but comes across like a guy in a zoot suit wondering why people don’t think he’s cool. Apple, its dappled face oif his innovation, combines cheap labour with gadgety foofaraw to extricate oodles of cash from consumerism. Facebook just never feels good; all sneaky and peremptory.

Design-wise, Facebook is surprisingly messy. It’s clearer than Myspace, but so’s my closet. I have to hunt the page if I want to do anything beyond posting. I am amazed that Facebook  makes billions with their advertising. Ads on it seem like those tv commercials that, when over, leave you wondering what kind of tree that was in the background. I almost never notice Facebook’s ads, let alone interact with them in some critically prosperous way. Somebody is, apparently, but  I do not know why.

I make it hard, perhaps, for Facebook to bleed me, because I don’t use the Like button much. When I do, it is for something someone wrote or uploaded. Leaves Facebook to make broad guesses about what sort of commodity exerts my eagerness. The button should be called Monetize This. The thing is, Facebook’s advertising model seems pretty old skool, or, more formally, the See If Anyone Salutes School of Advertising. Who am I to say, tho: they seem to be making a buck.

The IPO did not seem to have a point beyond making a handful of people rich. We keep hearing that Facebook has all this raw data, but until Facebook finds a way to cook it, the data collection just becomes an obsession. And for Facebook to succeed, that obsession can’t be irritating users. Facebook and all the other extremities of the social combine must balance that obsession with the necessity to remain within bounds. There are legal lines, however vague, that the company should not exceed. They must also respect—that’s an entirely wrong term to use in these circs, considering the disrespectful land grab these companies participate in—what their users think is too much. Users will push back when things get uncomfortable. That’s their job.

If I’m right that Facebook earned a billion dollars in advertising last quarter, and if I’m to believe that it has close to a billion active users, then the company earns about a buck per user per quarter. You can jiggle the numbers, everybody else does, but that billion sounds less lucrative. Still, a billion is a billion.

No use pretending that I can see the future. The mechanization of the social graph has its limits, which is to say, the social network seems less social. Facebook is trying to read a whole lot more into its Like button, for instance, than seems reasonable. Facebook seems to believe that people log in to get themselves some advertising. Of course we just put up with that. Even if we are interested in what ads offer, we invest our time in Facebook for the service, the chit chat, the pictures, the games, the excitement. And I was thinking about photos, which I admit I occasionally upload. Will I be uploading photos to Facebook the rest of my life? Facebook, Youtube, and so on, picture a future of that sort of desperation. Oh yes, things change.

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