LONDON – Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organization, “are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.” Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.
The Facebook pathogen doesn’t kill people, of course, for the good reason that dead people don’t buy stuff. But it does seem to affect victims’ brains. For example, it reduces normally articulate people to gibbering in the online equivalent of grunts. Likewise, it obliges them to coalesce all the varieties of human relationships into a simply binary pair: “friends” vs. everyone else. I have some real friends — as opposed to “friends” — on Facebook and every so often one of them posts a comment on something I’ve written. I’ve just looked at one such observation. It’s thoughtful, subtle and nicely written. But beneath it is a button simply labeled “Like.” If I click on it, my friend will doubtless receive a message from Facebook telling him that I “Like” his comment. Big deal.
What’s interesting about this is the way a software system has been designed to strip all of the nuances and complexities that characterize human interaction and compress them into a channel with the bandwidth of Morse code. Actually, the bandwidth is even more attenuated than that. At least with Morse, something can be either a dot or a dash, but Facebook lacks even that binary sophistication. It only has a “Like” button, possibly because a “Dislike” one might facilitate a higher level of discourse than that deemed desirable by the system’s architect.
Cultural critic Neil Postman once observed that you can’t use smoke signals for philosophical discussions: The communication channel simply doesn’t have the necessary bandwidth. One wonders what he would have made of Facebook, or of the fact that a sixth of the world’s population is apparently satisfied by such a primitive medium of communication.
Meanwhile, the efforts of Facebook’s owners to “monetize” these poor saps continue unabated. The basic idea is to use their personal data to refine the targeting of ads at them, which means that, as time goes on, the system becomes more and more tiresome to use. This raises the specter that, one day, the worms might turn and depart.
But hey! Facebook management has a plan for that too. It’s revealed in a fascinating patent application just published. Like all patent applications, it consists of three coats of prime technical verbiage, and the devil is in the detail but the essence of it is that in exchange for a monthly payment Facebook users will be able to get rid of ads and specify exactly what should replace them on their personal profiles. This is subtly different from what other “freemium” services such as Spotify currently offer.
You have to admire the chutzpah implicit in this. First, you bombard your hapless users with ads. Then you offer them relief in return for payment. There’s a word for this in English, but m’learned friends don’t approve of it, so I will avoid it. I’ll be surprised if the patent is approved, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a track record in granting daft patents, as, for example, U.S. Patent 5,443,036 for a method of exercising a cat by getting it to follow a spot generated by a laser pointer — so I might be unduly optimistic.
For fiendish ingenuity, however, Facebook’s latest move into the mobile-phone business takes the biscuit. Neatly avoiding the trap of getting into the handset-manufacturing game, the company has instead developed an Android app that really ought to be codenamed “Cuckoo” because it effectively takes over any handset on which it is installed. Actually named Facebook Home, it can be downloaded for some recent Android handsets and last week HTC unveiled the first phone that comes with it preinstalled. The app conceals the array of apps that normally dominate Android home screens and instead puts Facebook activity squarely in the center of the phone’s screen. It splashes status updates across the phone’s lock and home screens and makes Facebook’s messenger application ubiquitous with little “Chat Heads” that follow you from app to app, thereby making it easy to keep up with what pass for “conversations” on Facebook.
What Facebook Home means, of course, is that Facebook will be the first — and perhaps the only — thing that new users of smartphones, especially in emerging markets (i.e., poor countries), see when they fire up their devices. And when they want to search for something, why, they will use Facebook’s search engine rather than that of Google, the company that created the operating system on which Facebook’s app runs. Howzat!