Monday 23 March 2009
The Couch Surfer: 'It's remarkable how irritated people become when things change'
Funny," I tweeted recently (only with worse punctuation), "how all us young, innovation-friendly Facebook users are so resistant to change. We're already like crotchety old Radio 4 listeners."
This was my immediate, 137-character response to the online furore caused by the new-look Facebook, which assaulted the sensibilities of British users around the start of last week. And it elicited a couple of semi-angry replies from my fellow tweeple, incensed that I could quite be so insensitive to their complaints.
Well, I'll stand by that tweet. Whether they're middle-aged baby-photo botherers, or teens taking endless webcam self-portraits in search of the perfect profile pic, it's remarkable how quickly Facebook's fans get attached to a certain way of doing things – and how irritable they become whenever it changes, just like Radio 4 aficionados exercised over the scheduling shifts of Gardeners' Question Time.
While the internet hasn't stopped us resisting change, it has taught us to get used to it more swiftly. Soon the complaints about the new Facebook will subside, just as they did last time it got a facelift – all of, what, six months ago? (The Archers, on the other hand, will always be at 7.03pm.)
However, it's worth airing a couple of legitimate quibbles about the new layout, a shameless attempt to ape Twitter. Does Facebook really need to chase the Twit-vote yet, bearing in mind that the social networking site has 10 times as many users as the microblogging service?
Surely it just feeds into the misconception that Twitter consists of nothing more than endless Facebook status updates? This is the simple, superficial way to describe it, but most people who use it know that Twitter is a different beast – or was, at least, until last week.
Facebook, for instance, only allows you to follow your friends and social contacts (and the new layout makes actual networking – Facebook's original function – more difficult: your friends' new contacts no longer appear on your news feed). People with a technologically advanced social circle may use Twitter for the same thing, but no more than a handful of my Facebook friends are, so far, regular tweeters.
Instead, Twitter acts as a considerably more humane version of the RSS feed, providing me with real-time tidbits of interesting information from countless sources – friends, news sites, specialist blogs, artists and, erm, Jonathan Ross. It's an ever-shifting stream of collective consciousness, into which I can dip my virtual toes at will. Facebook, meanwhile, demands a more static personality. Like MySpace, its personal pages are shaped and maintained by its users, who want, to some extent, to craft a permanent profile.
Finally, the status update has somehow always been more annoying than the tweet. Facebook's new status prompt, "What's on your mind?" will only exacerbate the problem. It isn't nearly as efficient or straightforward as Twitter's "What are you doing?" It encourages irritating abstractions rather than the banalities that litter most Twitter feeds. I'd rather know the simple facts of what my friends are eating for breakfast than read their lofty musings on the nature of scrambled eggs.
Last week, Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, revealed some troubling findings in a speech at the LSE. The most significant was that 40 per cent of British households don't have basic internet access. Broadband penetration here is well behind the best-connected EU countries; Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.
The internet isn't just for Facebook, though sometimes you wouldn't know it. It's a crucial resource for children doing homework (even in schools that don't require their pupils to use the internet, those who do will have a significant advantage); for the elderly, it's an invaluable way of staying in touch with a world that isn't always so good at staying in touch with them; and I hardly need add the benefits that broadband could bring to the working public – especially in a nation with two million unemployed and counting.
The Facebook classes – including myself – are looking forward eagerly to a "cloud" computing world, where all our files and favourite services are available to us instantly on our portable netbook or iPhone, wherever we may be in our Wi-Fi smothered metropolis. But, while we witter on about Twitter, or Spotify, or Soundcloud, or nu-Facebook, the digital divide is fast becoming a social chasm.
By Tim Walker
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