Out in the Great Wide Open
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the online environments I and many, many other people participate in. As I see more friends leaving or taking long breaks from Facebook and Twitter because they don’t consider their experiences there healthy, I wonder “What is the point of these sites? Is it a good point?”
Long, long ago, in the misty days of the Before Times, when landlines were plentiful, internet connections were slow and unsteady, and lying about getting a blowjob could get you impeached, being social on the internet was not as open as it is now. There were huge, social websites–AOL, Prodigy, Usenet, and big bulletin boards like ISCA BBS (which is where I cut my global internet teeth)–but they were portals to forums based on various interests and hobbies, professions, backgrounds, not the wide open plains of Facebook and Twitter, where damn near anybody and everybody can see you, hear you, and interact with you. If you wanted to talk to people about TV shows, you went to a TV show forum. If you wanted to talk to people only about one particular TV show, you went to a forum dedicated solely to that TV show. There were still trolls who would come in to insult, argue needlessly, and drop links to virusy porn, but the forums were generally moderated, and moderated well. Trolls were usually dealt with quickly and easily, relatively speaking.
Now we have Facebook and Twitter, the largest and most accessible social sites. You can set privacy levels on Facebook to better manage your own posts, who sees them, who can comment, who can share them, but you have very little control over what comes through your feed from other people, or who can reply to comments you make on other people’s posts. On Twitter, you have the binary of your account being locked, so only people you allow can see it, or unlocked, where anyone can see it and reply. Unless you block people, which generally has to be done on the individual level. But unless you set up very specific filters and only follow those, you’re still going to see every tweet from every person you follow and the replies to their tweets.
Imagine going to a big bar where everyone can hear everyone else at equal volume. Imagine bar patrons who felt entitled to jump into any conversation and give their opinion or simply insult the people talking. (I know, this is a stretch. Who would do such a thing?) Imagine complaining to the bar manager and getting a shrug and “Hey, we don’t want infringe on free speech and the exchange of ideas” in response. Is this the best environment to talk with friends, meet new people, learn new information, and promote your work?
(I’m interested to know if there’s any data to suggest that authors and musicians posting on Twitter get better sales than authors and musicians who don’t post at all or post to selected audiences.)
This is obviously based mostly on my own experiences, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that arenas like Facebook and Twitter are far more harmful than they are healthy and useful. The signal to noise ratio is detrimentally unbalanced. I’m inclined to spend more time in web forums dedicated to specific topics and cultures, although I don’t necessarily see myself leaving Twitter and Facebook in the immediate future. But we’ll see…