February 22, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Reading Facebook

By |2018-03-21T18:33:07+01:00June 15th, 2008|"Scriptorium"|
Is he... an avatar?

t’s 2004. Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg observes campus newcomers: all toting standard paper facebooks. Dork-dull photo albums introducing faculty/staff/students. Boring, he thinks. Anybody can do it better.

So he did. First an Internet social graph for Ivy schools. Next a 30-university community.

Soon Mark goes global. Platforming to an homunculus universe of profiled “people.” In a virtual but dictionary-true book: “compilation of the known facts regarding items and persons.” Plus faces. Get user status by signing in at www.facebook.com (aka Face/ FaceB/ F/B). Enhance your virtual representation through photo or cartoon face (real or fake). Then text-invent your profile: your avatar. Keep this word in mind.

2008, four years on. Face has $8 billion market value. Over 70 million users eye-scanning the texts. Yes, you can download. But the real function is virtual reading. Because Face info updates every nano sec.

What do you say? Doesn’t a read-me item this hot merit closer looksee? With the usual bookish questions:

What’s on offer, exactly?

What are the caveat emptors?

Offer. You link into common interest groups, make a list of “friends.” Met online. Such global sourcing does produce real time opinions and information. And users feel singularly comfortable within the vaguely familiar Face package. In contrast to competitors MySpace and YouTube, who flood pages with volume music, neon blurbs, flashing texts, and blinkies, Face/B is a plain text offer. Despite a few encounters with some txtspk brigadiers- a user style that quickly moves from cute to coy- Face is basically cozy prose. Neophyte and uncertain? Check the Facebook Lexicon.

A homepage carries the usual print book BBLs (Big Blurb Lies). The table of contents offers: profile names; “Walls” (info uploads and pickups); “Forums” (chat groups). Infinite pages open to “social networking.” Served, and sought, on a disturbing scale.

So these 70 mil are hot to tap in. But beyond Face’s info utility function, what are they seeking? Maybe what’s promised in those BBls. Which is:

1. “Facebook practice improves your skills for creating and maintaining relationships on- or offline.” (But since when do on-and offline relationships equate?)

2. “Enrich an offline contact by investigation and surveillance of the online profile.” (Didn’t we used to call this “enrichment” simple spying?)

3. “Locate old classmates; keep up with friends; checkout buzz topics… celebs, books, cinema, more…” And of course: “meet new friends.” (But who are these new friends?)

Answer? They’re avatars. Uploaded as online meet and greet. Remember: you can produce any profile/avatar you fancy. Even a photo needn’t be yours. Sole condition for linking into F/B world? Provide your e-address as ID. Really? Are you and I alone in knowing how easily you set an e-address from an internet service point? For any name. This is the Facebook “authenticity” — benchmark for users? Isn’t it the reason so much private information is illicitly skimmed from profiles. By businesses joining a “friends” group. Joining through what Face chooses to call “malicious” applications. Right: Face makes it too easy to invade. And difficult to know who you really “meet.”

And so: caveat emptors. Got to these pretty quickly, didn’t we? From go, a F/B user should maintain red alert for lurkers, invaders, scammers. That seems high price for connecting up. Although those 70 mil apparently feel that entering a chat group-or simply linking to a “personal” profile-is worth the risk.

And risk it is. FaceB is complaint-flooded. About abuse. That too often refers both to porn peddling and pedophile hooks. Ok: the site now “deals with” complaints in twenty-four hours. But by that time the come-ons and traps are in place. Add this black hole: abuse systems use veiled openers, not always easy to recognize.

Other user-risks grow as Face does. Having learned the cash value of banner and sidebar ads, F/B enters viral communications commerce. Nasty as it sounds. This means that an advertiser — maybe for a soft drink — makes bonus offers to profilers linking to its “Sip” circle. All Sip bonuses automatically post as news update. To your My Friends list. Viral ad invasion.

Sure: you can make daily “Personal Privacy” blocks. But most decide to take the good with the bad (bombarding ad promos). For users are link-message junkies.

Consider how frequently they need to be “seen.” Take a real member we’ll call “Rick C.” He’s been logging on Face for two and a half years. In that time he’s made eight thousand four hundred and eighty-two postings. Not alone in his busy work either. Regulars often make a couple of thousand postings in a year. A Web Life becomes hypnotic. A substitute life.

BBLs promise “new circles of friends for social encounters.” Hard fact is: the ratio of online greets to offline meets is astoundingly slim.

So what in the wideworld do people dream they’re doing? In those soft-lit rooms, blinking into bright computer screens.

About the Author:

Former Rabelais scholar Patricia Fogarty honed her skills in the New York City publishing world. She lives in Rome and has been the magazine's book columnist for a decade.