Too Social to Fail? Thinking About Facebook, Netlabels, Free Culture, and Commercial Interests

Much of what I’m about to type was on my mind as I set up the page late last week, but I didn’t wanna dive in deep into the explanatory material when I got going on it. An unexamined life may not be worth living, but a prematurely explained experiment may die under the weight of its own overstated hypothesis. However, a question from Tom Moody, whose thinking and art I admire, and who has regularly participated in one of this site’s most “social” aspects (the MP3 Discussion Group), has provided me an impetus to think through this social-network stuff a little more in public.

The page is an experiment. I’ve experimented with most major, and many minor, social networks, and with the social-network aspects of other sites, notably video- and photo-sharing ones — and, of course, music ones. They rarely if ever click with me personally, for a variety of reasons, some regarding privacy, many regarding having some substantial amount of my time and effort associated solely with some third-party server that has no responsibility to keep that material available in perpetuity. I’m amazed by how much time people put (increasingly, and more commonly, it appears) into feeding websites whose URL they do not possess and whose servers they do not have direct access to. There seems to be a consensual hallucination that, like the earthquake that so damaged San Francisco in 1906, the death of a site like Geocities simply won’t happen again. People can giggle at the name Geocities, but there was, we should remember, an extended period of time during which few if any giggled at the name MySpace, or Friendster, or AOL. OK, maybe AOL was always ripe for some ribbing.

Case in point: When Yahoo! announced its disinterest in continuing maintaining (formerly A lot of people freaked out. And some people asked whether there should be concern that Flickr, which is also maintained by Yahoo!, might also lose the interest of its corporate benefactor. The consensual answer seemed to be, “No.” But I think that’s not an entirely informed response, and much as a lot of people haven’t even backed up their hard drives, a lot of people haven’t really considered how much of their visual history is tied up solely on a site owned by a massive corporation that has seen better days financially. And if not Flickr, then some other site that seems so ubiquitous as to suggest itself as a public utility. Until, one day, it is suddenly gone.

In brief: A lot of people who would dismiss “Too big to fail” when applied to Wall Street firms seem to take it as a matter of faith in regard to online services.

The primary reason, though, that I’ve found most social-network experiences lacking is a category of activity I think of as “feed the beast.” One joins a social network, and then the interface is designed to make one want to, for lack of a less awkward phrase, achieve more data — more recommendations, more connections, more digital stuff, a higher ranking, what have you. It’s like a dim, unimaginatively conceived, exceedingly linear video game, even though that’s not the experience you set out to, well, experience. (And that’s not to knock video games — just dim, unimaginatively conceived, exceedingly linear ones.) I have no interest in having any more beasts to feed. But some people like pets more than I do.

Personally, I’ve never been a regular Facebook user. Mostly it was a way to keep in touch on occasion with people I was otherwise not in touch with, friends from high school and college, and from previous places where I’ve lived — and (I’ll get back to this shortly) artists and musicians. I’m just old enough that I have a lot of pre-email friendships, pre-Internet friendships, friendships that far too often just sort of slowly faded when I left a place (home, a school, a job, a city, a coast). For a brief moment I thought, perhaps, Facebook might solve that, but of course it hasn’t. True to Facebook’s .edu origins, it’s very much like going to a college reunion: you go hoping to maybe run into certain people, and instead (or, to some extent, in addition) you end up running into people you had forgotten even existed. You have an OK time, but not the time you expected to have. And if you’re not cautious, much of the conversation is just empty gossip.

In general, personally, I almost only visited Facebook when I was pinged via email that someone had contacted me (usually just to confirm a connection). I have, though, experimented with it for Disquiet in the past:

For a short period of time, I had a little Facebook “Like” button under each post, right next to a little Twitter button. It was an experiment, and in the end I felt like it didn’t serve my purpose. If someone likes something on Disquiet enough to want to mention it on Twitter or Facebook, then OK, cool, thanks — but I don’t think it’s that difficult to copy a URL. In the end, the Facebook button seemed to be more about providing Facebook with an ever-expanding sense of ubiquity (again, too big to fail) than it did with adding nuance or functionality to And if anything, having those buttons makes distributing information so easy that, to my taste, it just feeds the casual-tacit-breezy-contextless sharing that is a kind of spam unto its own these days. So, I removed the Facebook button. And then, I removed the Twitter button, too.

For a brief period, a year or so ago, I had it set up that my “tweets” (I enjoy Twitter, the first social network I’ve found myself actively participating in, but I have trouble using that word “tweets” without [1] quotes and [2] wincing — then again, I still have difficulty sometimes using the word “blog” without feeling my shoulders creep up toward my ears and my neck sink down toward my heart) would pop up on Facebook. That was fun, in part because it introduced a large number of people who know me but didn’t, for whatever reason, know or really get to get a sense of where my head is at — where, one might say, my head has always been at. But in the end, the two cultures didn’t really overlap. The comments on Facebook on my cross-posted tweets were as much about confusion as enjoyment. In the end, auto-reposting the tweets to Facebook meant I was feeding the beast — I had to then explain stuff in a way that just didn’t feel useful to anyone in particular.

However … in the process, I did come to find something else: a bizarre (to me) number (which is to say: large) of musicians and artists for whom I have a substantial amount of admiration are on Facebook, and appear to be active on Facebook. In fact, for many, it seems to be a primary nexus of activity. Also, I was reading some books recently, and discovered that not only did their authors exist on Facebook, but they had some really interesting secondary materials there, supporting the book — maybe just incredibly subtle marketing materials, but good reading nonetheless. And, true to Facebook’s social charter purpose, some good conversation.

In particular, there are a lot of netlabels — a lot of record labels that actively give away their music for free, free being a subject I’ll return to momentarily — on Facebook, which brings me to television sitcoms. I watch a lot of TV, but I don’t enjoy sitcoms. I haven’t watched one regularly since Seinfeld went off the air, with the exception of two on HBO (Entourage and Sex and the City), neither of which I really think of as sitcoms. I don’t watch sitcoms in part because of the general lack of a story arc and character development, but mostly because they are comedies. I don’t generally enjoy comedies. I enjoy comedy (really, some of my best friends are jokes), but I laugh ten times as much (I feel the humor ten times as much) because of a joke that appears in a drama than I do at jokes in comedies.

And that’s how I think of most social networks; they’re like sitcoms. Online social activity is very interesting to me, especially on sites like Twitter and Soundcloud (where musicians communicate and, in the latter case, collaborate in the open), as well as how interactions occur in the comments on websites. Far less interesting to me is social activity on sites, such as Facebook, that appear to be entirely about social activity. (One more note regarding television. Part of the reason I enjoy watching long-form dramas over extended periods of time is watching how they change, in part due to unforeseen influences, like chemistry among actors, or fan input, or changes in the broader culture. That is a strong example of the impact on culture by social activity.)

A lot of people read and think I’m really into free culture. I occasionally get communications from people who are confused because I’ve reviewed a commercial release, as if Disquiet is some sorta straight-edge punk-ambient outpost. I am into free culture, but I’m not the musical version of a freegan. I’m not into it because it’s free (though that holds a certain appeal), or because it’s often, though not always, anti-commercial (though that, too, has its merits). I’m into it because the fluid exchange of cultural material in the free-culture movement (the Creative Commons, to somewhat sloppily attribute a specific legal approach to a very broad and far-flung community of communities) much more closely matches my understanding of the nature of creativity than does the world of commercial music. (To begin to say more would be to triple the length of this post, so I’ll stop there and leave it for another time.)

And, to cut to the chase (a phrase I probably have no right to employ, given how much I’ve just typed), if there is a lot of musician-related communal cultural activity going on on Facebook (there are, for example, a lot of netlabels on there, many of which I’d never heard of before), then I wanna see what’s happening, and how it’s happening. And I tend believe in participant-observervation, so having a outpost there is a means of participating.

One more note on feeding the beast. The page is almost entirely automated. It’s all of the posts and many of my tweets. However, getting that to work effectively has already proved more complicated than it need be. And tending to another technology is not something I have time for or interest in at the moment. So, as with other experiments ( had ads for a long time, and didn’t have comments, or images), we’ll see how it goes.

16 thoughts on “Too Social to Fail? Thinking About Facebook, Netlabels, Free Culture, and Commercial Interests

  1. Social this & that is indeed a big topic. I’m glad to follow Disquiet, the Fbk. version. Even tho’ it’s already on my Google reader (with way too much else). Too oververbal to do Twitter well. The visual & quick post leanings of Tumblr suits better.

    Net labels etc. that use as a server would seem likely to be kinda okay for some stretch. As much as anything online can said to be so. Soundcloud may be around a while as it sees much action/interaction.

    I have stuff all over, any of which might go piff . . . Seems foolhardy to think otherwise. Clouds come & go.

      1. Indeed, a policy I took on in an ad hoc, haphazard way . . . “Oh, wait, these folks won’t accept MP3 uploads anymore. Huh.” “Oh, hey, they’re free.” “And so are they . . .” grin

  2. That was a good read Marc. I’m still torn on facebook as a promotional tool as i’m torn towards the whole idea of completely overmarketing oneself on any imaginable platform. It’s like the grass-root idea of DIY concerning music/art now finally turned into a huge monster of neo-liberalism and identity

  3. Marc, my questions were aimed a little down the road, as in, after you’ve been on Facebook a few months, please let us know what good results came of this decision. When I was talking about the reasons not to be on Facebook, I was referring to its blatant commercialism, awful record on privacy, onerous terms of service with regard to your rights to your own content, facilitation of stalking (I’ve heard hair-raising tales of people being pursued by ex-es), as well as the assembly of vast dossiers of personal data beyond the dreams of the world’s secret police forces, with absolutely no guarantee of its protection or privacy. It’s not just a question of it becoming another Geocities and disappearing, it’s that it’s actively bad. It’s interesting to learn that there are communities of musicians behind the Facebook firewall–I won’t hear them, it almost makes me wonder if we could have a “Facebook music,” like an ethnic enclave in a mountain valley.

    1. Hi, Tom. I’ll certainly report back as I sort out more about what’s happening on Facebook in regard to music. It’s what I do. So far, my expectations are relatively low, in that I’ve witnessed little unique-to-Facebook activity in regard to production; it’s more about communication.

      The reasons not to be on Facebook are pretty clear. If the EFF, the Creative Commons, and the Internet Archive all were to decide to ditch their existing and fairly active Facebook pages, I would immediately have to reconsider my participation. Not that in the meanwhile I don’t have my concerns, as touched on above. In the meanwhile, I consider this cultural reconnaissance.

      I’m definitely aware of the active-badness. That’s what I’m getting at with my criticism of the culture of the Like button and the empty gossip.

      The Facebook firewall is an interesting one. When I think about such things, I often come back to a Ted Rall cartoon that I recollect but cannot locate, about what it meant that the Sopranos was this cultural phenomenon being discussed widely, when a not insignificant monthly payment (at the time, pre-iTunes, which still requires a payment, but not as hefty) was required for participation. Of course, the gated-community issue takes a unique turn here, in that Facebook has no monetary entry free beyond web access. You pay with your privacy, apologies to Ben Franklin in more way than one.

    2. I like the “Facebook music” idea without any notion of how that plays out.

      Even cool musical folks I “like” on Fbk seem to overpost with big heavy entries (not light one sentence remarks like Disquiet) as much as say a network TV show in constant promotion mode. Hard balance to strike.

      As to privacy, I can’t speak as an expert (middle name: “naive”) or anyone who ever reads the small print of TOS. But two suggestions. If an artist/label, exist on Fbk only as an entity, not a private person. And if on as a private person, lie about yourself–in fun inventive ways that deflect the Fbk’s reach and throw off stalkers/info farmers. And let current friends know, “oh, yeah, that’s her or him.”

      Let ’em know what you want, how you want.

  4. Kevin, agree with all of the above but it’s just too bad that one has to roleplay to be on there. I use my name on the “open web” but don’t have to worry about pokes and likes–there is no mechanism for that on my blog(s).

    I wonder if EFF, et al joined up in the heady early days of “we’re getting together a Facebook group to save the sharks!” before the first privacy walls blew out and the backlash started to set in. I feel (obviously) that old guard indie bloggers/self-publishers can be role models for providing alternative means of support and discourse. In other words, maybe those organizations will be followers rather than leaders in leaving Zuckerberg’s strange empire.

    1. Regarding EFF, to be clear, since you’re not on Facebook: its Facebook page is not a static entity long ago created as a holding page. Not that that’s necessarily your impression, but I wanted to make sure that is understood. The EFF’s Facebook page is updated regularly, a dozen times in the past week, for example, with numerous Like-ings and reader conversations in nested comments below each post. I don’t know when EFF launched its page, perhaps in those early days, pre-backlash, but it continues to maintain it post-backlash.

      My knowledge of cutting-edge, politically informed small presses is not what it once was, but two not-ancient but not-brand-new ones that came to mind when I read your note were Soft Skull and Manic D. I’d never been to either of their Facebook pages, didn’t know if they even had them, until just now, but they both apparently do. Manic D is political in the social sense. Soft Skull has published David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find, the anthology Confronting Capitalism (the updated version of The Battle of Seattle), and Dennis G. Fitzgerald’s Dealing with the Devil: Inside America’s Billion Dollar Informant Industry. As with the organizations I mentioned in my earlier response (notably EFF and Creative Commons), Soft Skull is one that I imagine to make informed decisions about what corporations it does business with. And I’ll now add Soft Skull to my checklist of organizations that, on the occasion they decide to cut and run, I would definitely reconsider my own page.

      This information isn’t be laid out here to defend Facebook, just to get facts clear about the nature of how the “pages” of the organizations I mentioned function, and to look at examples of politically minded and active small presses.

      As for indie bloggers and self-publishers, that’s a large field, and I’m sure while some are on Facebook, many aren’t. Just to ground myself and get my focus set, I want to look more into what music organizations have opted out of Facebook (or actively made the decision to never opt in, which is different than just not having gotten around to it).

      I looked to see if Aaron Cometbus’s self-titled zine was on Facebook, and didn’t find it, but I did find a page for a perhaps disbanded supergroup that had him and someone from Green Day in it? That’s beyond my sphere of knowledge.

      I also just now looked at the web page of one of my favorite small-press stores in Los Angles, Family (near Turntable Lab on Fairfax, and across from Canter’s), and it has a Facebook Like button right on its home page, which as home pages go is pretty darn spartan.

      I’m starting, having collated all of this, to feel like I just put on the glasses from They Live, so for the time being I’m going to stop thinking of political/edge-working publishers and looking for them on Facebook.

      Side note: Just this evening I learned of the deep irony of a social-media photo exhibit having its Facebook page yanked because it violated Facebook’s terms of use — a social-media exhibit violating a social-media company’s terms of use. Reason enough to boycott? I don’t think so, but it’s noted. I tweeted the fact of this matter, and I cross-posted the tweet to my Disquiet Facebook page.

      OK, one more, before I hit Submit Comment: Given the ongoing matter of terms-of-service, and Kevin’s culture-jamming suggestion of “lie about yourself” (which I don’t do on Facebook, but regularly do in other online-survey circumstances), I (before logging off for the evening) thought, “What’s a technologically informed, perhaps even paranoid, small-published zine that I could look to as an example?” What came to mind was 2600, the hacker quarterly. And I looked on Facebook. And, yeah, it has a Facebook page, albeit not particularly active, maybe two or three posts per month.

  5. Is the social media photo exhibit you mentioned Carriage Trade’s show of cell phone photos? One of the artists in that show emailed me a “link to the photos” a couple of days ago and I was annoyed when I clicked on it to discover it was a Facebook sign-in. Then I got a note from Carriage Trade that the photos had been moved to the open web and I and emailed Peter Scott and said “thank you – now I can see the work!”

    Thanks for doing the research, Marc–Soft Skull in particular surprises me. I’m even more vastly outnumbered than I thought, so back to my berry- and grub-eating wild man analogy.

    I hope this issue doesn’t become an Apple vs PC type third rail issue (“oh no another anti-Facebook nut”) but if you don’t mind, here are a couple of posts that inspired me to keep harping on this (recycled from my blog): (The Thing) (Geert Lovinck)

    You make a good point about the distinction between “actively making the decision to never opt in, which is different than just not having gotten around to it.” There’s a third position: I’ve had media artists joking that “Tom doesn’t don’t know how to use Facebook” which seeks to discredit the criticism as some kind of old-fogey Luddism. This seems straight out of the propagandist’s playbook, a way of keeping everyone on the commercial bandwagon. Ironically, a friend of mine who teaches art at the college level says some of his students are staying off Facebook as a conscious decision–I have more in common with them than the stereotypical “elder.”

    1. Yeah, that was it, Carriage Trade. I don’t know why I didn’t name it in the post. I named it in the tweet (and the Fbook mention). Must have been sleepy. For folks interested, the URL is here:

      The Apple/PC one is such a duality, and involves two affirmative consumption paths, I don’t know that Facebook would ever really match it. But who knows? I do know, as a measure of the Apple/PC thing’s intensity, that I speak probably more freely about religion and politics than I do about the subject.

      Thanks for those links. I will read them shortly.

      And I hear you on the opting-out thing, and the alignment potentially with views of a generation gap. I do think Facebook has long been so large that to make generalizations about user behavior is inherently false. I can barely make generalizations about San Franciscans, or Californias, let alone Facebook users — not that you’re doing it, but the pro and semi-pro trendwatchers who say things like: Kids are dropping email for Fbook, or everyone’s ditching Fbook for Twitter, or … well, stuff like that. They have no real investment in seeing their ideas through. They’re just, to re-use a phrase from up top, feeding the beast. In this case, the beast that passes for either marketing horizon-forecasting, or public-intellectual jibber-jabber.

  6. One more thing I just noticed. On laptop and desktop computers, you can look at a page like

    and read it and follow its links, but not participate, even if you have all your cookies turned off and so forth.

    For some reason, the page doesn’t show in the mobile-phone-browser (at least in Android 2.3 in its standard browser), but that’s just on an initial test.

    In brief, the system is less firewalled, the community less gated, than we might imagine.

  7. I know some Facebook pages are visible these days, but it’s only going to be matter of a few links (such as the one to Carriage Trade’s photo show) before they want you to sign in. On the plane this weekend American Airlines was showing The Social Network. I sampled a few random minutes with the sound off. Rapidly-edited, choreographed closeups of tense faces shot in half-shadow or by the glow of screen light: it looks like a TV biopic crossed with a horror film. Again, no offense meant, but I kept thinking about Creative Commons, EFF, and Soft Skull Press and wondering what they could possibly find so appealing about a site–nay, a virtual reality cosmos–designed by a maladjusted Harvard undergrad.

    1. So far, all the post-specific links in the Disquiet Fbook page lead to the appropriate off-site destination URL.

      Hope you had a good trip. Travel sounds like it’s been a nightmare these recent days. I haven’t seen the movie yet, as its release coincided with my kid’s birth, which has largely kept me out of movie theaters. I like Sorkin quite a bit (mostly from West Wing and a bit of that SNL-manqué series he did after), and Fincher some (Fight Club, Se7en, bits of his Alien — but couldn’t abide by Zodiac or Benjamin Button) and by many reported tellings the movie is apparently about as true to what actually occurred as you’d recently noted Dog Day Afternoon is.

      Again, I end up coming across like I’m defending Facebook, which isn’t my intention. I’m exploring it. So far I have be-Friended about 30 netlabels. And there’s been some interesting discussion (mostly about Douglas Rushkoff’s book) that I’m not sure would have happened on had I not cross-posted. No way to tell for sure, of course.

  8. Your absolutely right about the share button. It is just another way for big corporate social media to get free advertising space on your webpage. Have we just gotten lazy or forgot entirely how to copy and past (or god forbid, type out) a web address? Or is the like button psychologically pushed a pone us for fear that we will be over look and left behind in the social media environment?

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