Is Facebook now encouraging superfluity? / Corbis

Earlier this week, screen shots leaked of a new Facebook strategy that it appears to be trialling: recommended topics

In December 2006, new Twitter user @dub considered the prompt that was posed in the empty text box. "What are you doing?" it asked. In response, he posted a simple, one-word message: "Chillin". And that was that. Years went by. Uninspired, unwilling to vent and reluctant to self-promote, @dub remained tight-lipped. He didn't want to ladle the contents of his brain on to social media. He had nothing to say.

In 2009, Twitter changed its prompt to "What's happening?", a more wide-ranging, inclusive call to action that founder Biz Stone claimed would make the service "easier to explain to your dad" – but @dub remained unmoved. He remained a statistic; one of millions of inactive Twitter users, willing to join up but not that interested in using it.

On Facebook, similar tweaks have been made over the years to that status update prompt, hoping to inspire people to exercise their fingers and post something. In the beginning, there was your name followed by "is…" (to which people would often simply reply "bored"). In 2007, that became "what are you doing right now?", and in 2009 it changed to "what's on your mind?"

With each change, the remit of the service broadened, from recording how you might be feeling, to what you might be doing, to anything that you might be thinking about, any topic whatsoever. But today, people still gaze at the box and can't think of anything to say.

But help is at hand! Earlier this week, screen shots leaked of a new Facebook strategy that it appears to be trialling: recommended topics. One Facebook page owner was confronted with the message: "Want to post to your fans but have run out of ideas?" – followed by suggested hashtags such as #QueensOfficialBirthday, #WorldGinDay and #WorldBikeNakedDay.

 

Then a basketball fan by the name of Jedrzej Derylo found himself exhorted by Facebook to post what was on his mind, encouraged by a picture of a basketball and the casually mentioned fact that the NBA playoffs were underway. Go on, Jedrzej, post about basketball. It's your duty. Get those thoughts out there.

While you can understand the frustration of a social media service whose users might be stubbornly refusing to engage, you have to question the wisdom of urging them to say something – anything! – rather than nothing. After all, another equally pressing problem facing Twitter and Facebook is that of users complaining about being engulfed with superfluous content. But is Facebook now encouraging that very superfluity? It's a short hop from suggested hashtags to pop-up lists of inspirational messages such as "life is not a rehearsal!" or "more gratitude less attitude!" that users simply click to publish. Lord help us.

A few years ago I was given a book called Pocket Muse that's supposed to inspire writers to fill a blank screen, with prompts such as "what is the opposite of a kiss?" and "write about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object".

To be honest, that book only reinforced my opinion that you shouldn't write something for the sake of writing it. And today, I can't help feeling that a better social media prompt might be: "THINK: In posting this, will you be contributing anything worthwhile?"

For his part, @dub returned to Twitter on Tuesday after more than seven years, saying: "Just got done chillin."

That post has since been retweeted 22,000 times. Sometimes it pays to wait a bit before posting.

Twitter.com/rhodri

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