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December 28, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

The Social Net Work

Moving all the way across the country, I'm finding social media invaluable for maintaining connections with my friends back in DC. It's no substitute for actually being there, but it's not supposed to be: instead, I get peeks into the life of my coworkers, the other members of Urban Artistry, and my other East Coast friends--just enough information that I still feel like I know how they're doing (and, hopefully, vice versa).

But which social media? I'm active on at least three, all of which I use (and compliment this blog) in different ways:

  • Twitter typically takes the place of a linkblog. It's where I post quick, hit-and-run content that I find interesting, but not enough that I want to comment on it at length. I follow more people who don't know me on Twitter than I do anywhere else.
  • Facebook is not my preferred social network, because they've shown again and again that given the option of maintaining my privacy or selling me out, they will reach for the check every single time, and they don't seem to understand why people get upset when they do. But all my friends are on Facebook, and therefore so am I.
  • Somewhere in the middle is Google+. They've made missteps (no pseudonyms) but the basic idea is good. I like the way G+ is built for short-to-medium length writing: I don't want to write blog posts there, but it gives me enough room to tell a decent joke. Unfortunately, most people still haven't moved over, and there aren't any desktop clients for posting.

Of course, this is not a battle to the death. I don't have a problem picking the right place to post something (in fact, I kind of welcome the audience segmentation). But it's such a hassle, switching between windows or re-opening old pages to check for updates. What I really want is a single method of subscribing to updates from all of these services (and more) and optionally posting to them from a single box--what Warren Ellis calls One Big Thing Everywhere.

But that isn't something that the people developing social networks seem to be interested in facilitating. You can't get a decent RSS feed from any of these services anymore. And even building such a thing myself would be prohibitively difficult: Twitter's API is increasingly dense, Facebook's is notoriously hostile, and the G+ API is practically non-existent.

This is not a coincidence, of course, just as it's not a coincidence that Facebook has removed RSS as an input option and that Google recently integrated Reader directly into G+. My personal opinion is that these companies are working hard, both directly and indirectly, to kill decentralized syndication standards like RSS in favor of gateways that they can control.

All of which is the kind of thing that I shouldn't have to care about. But these days, as Lawrence Lessig observed in Code, we're writing our social and legal values into software. In this case, it's the software that helps me keep in touch with my friends and family back on the East coast. That's more than just inconvenient--it's a disturbing amount of power over our personal connections. Ironically, it's only when I use social networks the most that I seriously consider giving them up.

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