Likes Facebook

I am a Facebook user, and have been for a few years. I’ve weathered a number of changes to the UI and its policies, as far back as remembering the day I had to provide my university email address in order to be allowed an account. In those days it was strictly for colleges and universities. The news feed has always been there though, so I’m not that old!

I consider myself to be a conservative Facebook user. I share some status updates between Facebook and Twitter, I share articles of interest with my friends and I ‘like’ my top 5 books, films and artists. I don’t seek out strangers in order to boost my friend count, and the few dozen that I have befriended are carefully arranged in groups in order to hide nonsense from those I’ve networked with, and to keep private information only for those who I trust.

I would wager that every Facebook user knows somebody else who is not so restrained; in fact, it may be you. Time was, these people would forever send me invitations to use Generic ‘Poking/Lifestyle Quiz/Hyped-up Monster Game’ Application. Their friends count would shoot past 300, and any messages left on their wall were smothered by “ALRITE M8” and other application notices due to sheer bulk.

Through a gradual shift in Facebook’s platform, and some careful culling on my part, I don’t see these sorts of messages any more. Instead, Facebook itself does the spamming, in a small box to the right of my news feed. I am informed, by this entirely unintelligent script, that because a friend of mine likes Wayne Rooney or Glee, I might too. I’m occasionally shown ‘popular pages’ in this slot too, such as links to the Peter Andre fan page or an American pop icon I’ve never come across in my life.

Pages devoted to people and projects are tolerable. My ultimate bugbear, topping even the application invites of old, is the dreaded activity page.

This used to be a phenomenon which manifested as groups, however the rulings on creating communities changed around a year ago and an update to the Facebook profile now generate pages based on what users type into fields like ‘hobbies’ and ‘general’. Coherent phrases like “Tom Smith joined We are the ones your parents warned you about” became “Tom Smith liked We are the ones…”.

It seems that I’m not alone, as this remarkable story attests. I recommend reading it in full, but if you crave a summary, it’s an article by the author of Shut Up, I’m Talking!, Gregory Levey:

Very quickly, I had passed celebrities like Brad Pitt (55 000 fans) and Spike Lee (67 000 fans), as well as entire countries (Spain: 25 000 fans). And as time went on, my book’s page overtook ridiculously famous authors like J.K. Rowling (95 000 fans) and even Dan Brown (499 000 fans). Soon, my book had more fans than New York City (510 000 fans). It was mind-boggling, bizarre, and unnerving, especially since it was unclear what was driving this. Only when I noticed that some of these fans had been posting messages on my page’s “Wall” did I realize what was going on. Their quotes were along the lines of:

“Yeah, I was saying something and my mom broke in, and I was like, ‘Shut Up, I’m Talking!’ LOL!”

Or:

“Cool page! I hate it when people talk over me!”

Perhaps you can see what had been happening. Even though the fan page shows the book’s cover and its synopsis, and informs visitors that it was published by Simon & Schuster, the vast majority of these supposed “fans” were somehow totally unaware that it was referring to a book at all. They had simply joined because they were fans of the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”

Baffling, no? It’s quite easily done, though: the ‘like’ button, which adds your name to the roster of fans, can be ticked without ever having visited the page. Although a thumbnail is often shown within this box, you can join this page from the comfort of your own news feed. Another variant also places your friends’ ‘like’ updates directly within the news feed as a one-line item. This is all they see:

Ordinarily I write this blog in order to justify my choices and opinion on where games and online media should change. I struggle with Facebook’s ‘like’ culture, because while it may be inane by my standards, it is, nevertheless, a fun feature. Levey has seen his book’s online presence become utterly smothered, and there seems no doubt that he resents this given the effort which went into the project. Tens of thousands of people are now made quite aware of its title, however. While it’s by no means a cultural phenomenon, the exposure may just earn him a few more readers regardless.

While I’m on phenomena, I feel a need to raise the point that this Facebook activity is unique in its roots and actual impact. These sorts of messages play out as cultural memes, as large numbers of people spread a single message. The phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking!” will not, however, register in the same way as non-Facebook memes. Probably the biggest ‘word on the street’ right now is “vuvuzela”; it is a foreign word which is easy and fun to say, and it is associated with a uniquely annoying phenomenon upon which most people have an opinion. It stands for something. The same could be said of “bow ties are cool”, though it’s narrowed down to fans of Doctor Who, or of other internet phrases like “fail”. I can’t recall Facebook memes ever reaching this level of use.