Much of what I’m about to type was on my mind as I set up the facebook.com/disquiet.fb 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 facebook.com/disquiet.fb 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 delicious.com (formerly del.icio.us). 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 Disquiet.com. 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  quotes and  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 Disquiet.com 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 Disquiet.com 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 Disquiet.com outpost there is a means of participating.
One more note on feeding the beast. The facebook.com/disquiet.fb page is almost entirely automated. It’s all of the Disquiet.com 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 (Disquiet.com had ads for a long time, and didn’t have comments, or images), we’ll see how it goes.