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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Not Liking Post-IPO Facebook As Much? The Copyright Hoax Shows Why

A segment of a social network

A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Facebook, we have a problem, and you’d  better deal with it before it’s too late. You used to be a social network. But since your IPO you’ve changed. Spending time with you now feels like too much network and not enough social. And the social is the reason why we’ve been coming around. Why do I say this? Just consider the latest hoax infecting news feeds, the one where users posted legalistic gobbledygook declaring self-protective personal copyright protection.

The important question to ask is why so many people so quickly posted a declaration that falls somewhere between the ineffective and the ridiculous. And when why is asked the answer emerging is that lots of people are starting to get sort of creeped-out by post-IPO Facebook. That’s right, creeped-out. Being on Facebook is starting to feel like what walking around Times Square felt like in the 70s; there is something there you want but you had best stay anxiously suspicious because someone might be trying to rip you off.

The creeped-out feeling should not be a surprise. Post-IPO Facebook is trying to monetize a feature of basic human nature: our insatiable drive to connect with other people. The drive to connect with other people, what John Bowlby, the mid-20th century psychologist, developed into “attachment theory,” helps explain much of human development and behavior.

Facebook tapped into our hunger (i.e., our fundamental need) for attachment by providing a clean interface to interactive technologies that helped us feel like we were connecting to each other, however much we may have felt so while sitting by ourselves. It was like the feeling of flying in a state-of-the-art flight simulator; you had the experience even though your feet never left the ground. We felt ourselves immersed in moments of relating even though physically alone. Though by ourselves at keyboards, emotionally we were elsewhere: back on the playground; sharing photos with the family; on a date; hanging out at the mall, bar, or coffee shop; or back at the freshmen mixer or senior year lunch table. The keyboard didn’t matter. Neither did the physical separation. We felt connected. We experienced other people, and experienced them experiencing us, even if it was just for a moment. It was social alchemy and being on Facebook used to be tremendous fun.

But that is changing. It does not feel quite so social anymore. Sponsored stories, personalized ads, a new Gifts service, and Facebook logins ubiquitously present across the web combine to change the way it feels, and not in a good way. This change in how FB lets us experience each other, a change that leave many feeling creeped-out, is what the copyright hoax reveals. You wouldn’t suddenly present your spouse with a post-nuptial agreement, or come to work and present your manager with a self-protective legal document, unless something was amiss, unless you felt there was a reason to protect your self. Same thing with the recent wave of self-protective status updates. There would be no need unless people were feeling something was off, feeling that something they needed and wanted was imperiled and in need of protection. And what we need and want is each other.

It would be easy, and wrong, to say this primarily reflects a concern over privacy (see Kashmir Hill’s excellent post about the hoax and the current status of Facebook privacy issues ). No new privacy policy is going to rebalance the increasingly off-kilter feeling of Facebook. What will help is finding a way to monetize the user base without threatening the very reason why people use FB in the first place—to feel connected.

Before the hoax I had thought my experience on FB was changing for personal, maybe even idiosyncratic, reasons. I noticed a change and thought it was just me. For example, when I read the status updates from my cousin’s kids and saw they were continuing to grow into wonderful people, I felt grateful for the information. But I felt less connected, less part of their lives. The “social” part of the “network” wasn’t working as well. So I began checking in less and less. After all, only the truly strange would want to spend lots of time hanging out in the Times Square of 1975.

So, while I take comfort from the copyright hoax and see that lots of people are also feeling the post-IPO change, and hope you do too, I also hope Facebook gets it together. And since I have not yet sold the handful of shares of Facebook I own, I guess I remain confident that they can still become a money-making SOCIAL network, and not turn into a doomed-to-fail Google-ish network that used to be social.

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