The joys of online noise [Rerun Sunday]

Facebook gets a lot of abuse. And it’s earned most of it. They routinely make privacy an opt-in feature, and then compound that problem by making it hard for people to find the right settings to change if they do, in fact, want to opt in. They mine our friends’ profiles for pix and prose that they can turn into “personalized” ads, and then compound that problem by telling us that these bits of purchased hucksterism are merely “featured” content. They scrape our so-called private messages (and the public ones too) for anything that looks like a political preference and hand all that info (in aggregate form only, we’re told) off to third parties. They change major design features every other week or so, and then compound that problem too by largely ignoring the complaints of thousands — even millions — of their users who were perfectly happy (or happy enough, anyway) with the previous look and feel of the site. You can, no doubt, add your own litany of things that Team Facebook gets wrong to the items above . . . but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

No, for all the things that Facebook gets mind-bogglingly, astoundingly, stupefyingly wrong, they actually get at least one thing very, very right. And, significantly, it’s one of the things that an awful lot of people think they screw up the worst. For all the redesigned walls, feeds, sidebars, and timelines, the one feature — and I want to insist that it really, truly, honestly is a feature — that Facebook has never changed is that the site is incredibly noisy. If anything, most of those redesigns have made it even noisier.

Assuming that you have more than a dozen or so friends — and I mean “Facebook friends,” of course, who may or may not be people you consider your friends offline (but that’s a topic for another day) — your encounters with Facebook are most likely an endless barrage of information. Status updates. Check-ins. Uploaded photos. Event invites. Game annoucnements. And so on. The vast majority of these bursts of trivia about your friends’ lives aren’t actually intended for you in any directed fashion. By default, Facebook assumes that everyone wants to share everything with everyone else, so your friends generally have to make an extra effort not to share that status update about their great bike ride (or their recent bout of food poisoning, or their trip to see their grandmother, or what have you) with everyone they know. And since most people don’t make that effort, Facebook is a very noisy place indeed. This is a large part of why so many people run away from it. Or at least complain about it.

It’s also precisely why it works.

The best way to illustrate this is to compare Facebook to its latest major competitor: Google+. Trying so very, very hard to be the anti-Facebook, Google+ is set up, by default, so that you only share things with the people you specifically want to share those things with. You can, of course, opt to share things Facebook-style — i.e., with everyone you know on the network — but (again) most people don’t make that extra effort.

And so while Facebook is noisy to the point of being overwhelming, Google+ is almost deathly in its silence. Tomblike even.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with quiet social spaces — and nothing intrinsically superior about noisy ones. But Facebook seems to understand — much, much better than Google+ does — that a certain level of noise helps to produce a palpable sense of energy and excitement. Or, at the very least, it produces a measure of variety that, in turn, fosters actual engagement. Whenever I check Facebook, it’s almost always different — even if the time that’s passed since I last checked it is only a minute or two — and so even if 99% of what appears in my feed doesn’t grab my attention (mind you, that’s too high a figure, but only because I’ve hidden a lot of “friends” whose daily routines matter to me less), I’ve almost always got some potential reason to wonder if something has happened to someone that is actually worth my attention. Which, in turn, means I’ve got a reason to spend time on the site . . . and that often means I wind up finding something worth commenting on myself, and so I add to the overall level of noise, and the cycle continues.

Google+, on the other hand, can stay unchanged — at least from my perspective — for hours at a stretch. Sometimes days. To be fair, some of this might be a simple function of numbers: I have more Facebook friends than I have Google+ friends, so I’m likely to see more traffic on the former anyway. Still. The drop-off is much, much sharper than that. People who are my friends on both sites are almost always much, much more active on Facebook. They (and I, too, to be fair) could be much noisier on Google+ — but the site makes you work harder to do that. And so, for most people, it simply never happens at all.

Put a different way, Facebook is sort of like a giant, open-air house party. You walk in, there are lots and lots of people, they’re all engaged in lively banter of one sort or another . . . and while a lot of that is just noise to you, it’s still got a vitality and an energy that you can feel. And it’s pretty easy to drop in and out of conversation circles at will. The party as a whole may not appeal, but you can still have a pretty good time anyway. Google+, on the other hand, is like a high-rise apartment building where you know that there are parties going on all over the place, but where the walls are all soundproofed, the doors are all shut and locked, and you either have to be willing to knock on a few of those doors or you have to get lucky and hope someone opens one of them as you’re passing by . . . otherwise, you’re just going to wind up wandering the halls all by yourself.

None of this means that Facebook doesn’t still have serious issues with their privacy policies (they do) or that they don’t deserve a lot of the flack they get (ditto). And i have no doubt that there are people who are perfectly happy with the quieter, more buttoned-up atmosphere of Google+. But a large part of what makes Facebook actually work well — from users’ perspectives, mind you, rather than as a business — is actually bound up with many of the things that it seems to do so badly.

You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post above originally appeared on 7 February 2012.

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