Jaza's World Trip

On Facebook and travelling

Facebook: the great online social networking success story of 2007. A few years ago, Facebook was a small and elite little community of American college students, largely unheard-of by the Net at large. Today, it boasts over 60 million users worldwide, and it seems that nobody is free from its ever-expanding influence. I joined Facebook during this trip, in March last year — a mere one month into the voyage — and since then, it's become an ever-more important part of my online life, as well as (surprisingly) an indispensable aid to travelling. It's now reached the point where Facebook has become quite a significant element in the story of this trip. Which is why I feel that the time has finally come to blog about it.

I've traditionally been (and I still am) a big fat cynic of social networking websites in general. As far as I'm concerned, there are far too many of them, they're all copies of each other, they all serve absolutely no useful purpose, and they're all a gigantic waste of time. In short, my view is that they're a cancer upon the face of cyberspace, and that joining them should be avoided at all costs. SixDegrees, Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, Hi5, and (most evil of all) the dreaded MySpace: I say to all of these services, resistance is not futile! No, I don't care how many stupid "will you be my friend" invitations people send me: I ain't joining. My life is better without these juvenile and mindless "services", and yours could be too.

When I first heard of Facebook, I assumed that it was just "yet another stupid social networking website", and that it would never take off any more than all of its equally stupid competitors. And that was a fair enough assumption to make. It was only when I became quite literally forced to join Facebook, that I made the concession: "OK, perhaps it's slightly less crap than its competitors"; although at the time I wasn't at all convinced.

Facebook and this trip became inextricably intertwined, right from the day I joined. That's because the person who forced me to join was Genna, my Canadian friend whom I stayed with for a week in Vancouver, back in March. I was trying to get hold of Genna, through her myriad of different e-mail accounts; but she didn't seem to be checking any of them. I e-mailed her to let her know that I was coming to Vancouver, and I waited over a week; but I heard nothing from her. Finally, in desperation, I joined Facebook, and sent her a message using that instead. What do you know: within the space of a few hours, I received a reply. And thus it was that Facebook empowered me to pull off one of the bigger reunions that I've had on this trip; and from that day on, resistance has indeed become ever more futile.

My experience with Facebook — over the past nine months — has been that of a traveller, using it to keep in touch with people back home, and to remember people whom I've met along the way. And I have to admit that for this purpose, it's proved to be incredibly useful. Facebook is the perfect tool for making you feel "connected" with your circle of friends back home, no matter where you are in the world. Because Facebook is designed from the ground-up to be such an incestuous tool — first-and-foremost, it lets you "spy" on everything that your friends are saying to each other and doing with each other — it keeps you in-the-loop ridiculously well. Whether or not these things are any of your business is another story: but regardless, Facebook shows them to you, and it shows them to you immediately, as the first thing you see every time you log in. Every time one of your friends writes a message on another one of your friends' "walls", Facebook shows you the message. Every time one of your friends signs up for an event, Facebook tells you about it. And every time one of your friends forges new friendships within your circle, you know about it. It could easily be argued that Facebook is an immoral, perverse and voyeuristic product — and in my opinion, that wouldn't be far off the truth at all.

As well as keeping you connected with events at home (to an almost kinky extreme), Facebook is also a wonderful way to stay in touch with all the many and varied faces that you (often fleetingly) encounter, when you're in the middle of an epic world trip. Facebook records how you know all your friends, and where you met them. It lets you quickly match names to faces, and faces to memories. It lets you keep astride of where in the world everyone is in their respective travels, and of how they've been faring since you parted ways. Facebook has — gradually and insidiously — become such an integral part of my way of keeping in touch with people, that I can hardly imagine how backpackers managed to retain contact with each other at all, prior to its rise and domination. E-mail — which merely gives you a name and an address (and in the case of Gmail, a history of past correspondence), and which lacks all the context that helps you remember who someone is and what they mean to you — e-mail seems, in contrast, a weak and primitive tool these days, compared to the rich communication environment that is Facebook.

Even these days, though — now that I've been well-and-truly sucked in to the Facebook revolution, and now that I log in daily (when possible) as part of my online routine — I still can't shake off the old cynicism and suspicion; and I still consider Facebook to be a part of the useless, evil, and ultimately doomed conglomerate of social networking websites that exist online today. I always have said, and I always will say: if you just want to send someone a message, what's wrong with plain, old-fashioned e-mail? Why do you need all the bells-and-whistles of Facebook, to accomplish this simple task? And if you want to stay in touch with a group of friends, why not set up a plain, old-fashioned mailing list? They achieve the same broadcast functionality as does Facebook, only in a much more accessible and tried-and-true medium.

There are also a number of tasks for which everyone seems to be using Facebook these days, and for which I point-blank refuse to use it. Many of my friends are now asking me: "why don't you ever post your photos on Facebook?", "why don't you use Facebook to tell us where you are and where you've been?", and "why don't you post your travel stories on Facebook?" And for all of these questions, my answer consists of two crucial points of reasoning.

First: for all these tasks, I already have other online tools external to Facebook, and those other tools are far superior to Facebook for the tasks in question. For photos, I use Flickr, which is designed exclusively as an online photo service, as opposed to Facebook which has merely tacked on photo services as a poorly-designed extra feature. And for where I've been and stories of what I've been doing, I use this blog — the location map is at least as good as Facebook offers, if not better; and I've personally designed this blog to be the perfect place for me to post my travel stories.

Second: these three particular tasks (blogging, location-recording, and photo-sharing) all involve the management of data that is extremely valuable and extremely precious to me; and put simply, I don't trust Facebook to manage and to permanently preserve that data. Flickr is a premium service, dedicated to truly safeguarding my photos, and not likely to be going anywhere soon. And my blog is my own service, which I trust because I built it myself, and which isn't going anywhere because neither am I (or is the reverse true — my blog isn't going anywhere, but there's hardly anywhere that I'm not going :P). I don't trust the format in which Facebook would handle my data; I don't trust the methods with which Facebook would let me extract and backup my data; and I don't trust what Facebook would do with my data were I to place it in that service's hands.

I once said to a friend of mine, several months ago: "Facebook is but a passing breeze". And I maintain that argument. Especially in light of the recent purchase of 1.6% of Facebook by Microsoft — because we all know what Microsoft does to companies that it buys, and it's generally not too pleasant at all. Microsoft is notorious for dealing with its competitors, through the "death by buying out" approach. Although even as an independent company, Facebook — in my opinion — always has been and always will be doomed. It may be cool, it may be useful, and it may even be productive: but at the end of the day, it's a fad, and everyone tires of fads once the novelty's worn off. But I can't deny that Facebook has been my friend while travelling this past year; and that while it survives, I encourage all travellers to make the most of Facebook, and to use it for keeping in touch not just with your buddies back home, but with the new world that you're romping through and forging links with during your journey.

Filed in: BarcelonaTechnologyReflection