Previously: Against Facebook: Details
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Epistemic Status: Shouting from the rooftops. For further details, see previous post.
This post is my recommendations for how to communicate online. If you need details and/or detailed justifications of my view of Facebook’s awfulness, check out Against Facebook: Details. I recommend reading it if either the details would interest you for their own sake, or you do not understand what I mean when I say that Facebook is out to get us.
I consider the non-obvious goals of a unified system to be
1: Minimize check-in requirements
When you feel the need to constantly check something or risk missing important things, that is very bad. You should minimize the number of places you need to check in, and the cost to checking in at those locations. You do not want that Skinner Box addictive drive to constantly hit refresh, but if you need to have it, have it in one place where you know right away if there is indeed something new and what it is. When Facebook is the source of important information and interaction, it adds another check-in point without taking away the need for others.
2: Know what you are responsible for seeing, and what others are responsible for having seen
There needs to be agreement that communication in some forms means you are responsible for seeing that information within a reasonable time frame, and equally important, you need agreement that communication in other forms does not carry this same obligation. Facebook operates in a grey area where people assume you have seen anything important, sometimes (in my personal experience) even if they have been explicitly told multiple times you never look at Facebook at all, but there is a real danger that any given post was never in your News Feed at all, let alone seen. Facebook needs to be in the second category, of things that no one is assumed to have seen unless they explicitly tell you (via a like, a response, or otherwise).
3: You need to be able to see everything you want to see, and know you have seen it, with a minimum of stuff you do not want
Advertisements are a negative, but so is being forced to see stuff you do not want along with stuff you do want, and having to sort through all of that. Ideally low-quality stuff is there when you want it but not mixed in too much with high-quality. You need a reasonable record of what you have and have not read, and to avoid unnecessary duplication. You absolutely, positively need to be able to know that you have not missed anything. On Facebook, this option is not available at this time except for the See First option.
4: You need to not be punished if you leave things for later
The worst is when things actually vanish from the internet entirely; anything that does this or gives daily rewards is automatically in the out to get you camp and needs to be treated accordingly. Almost as bad is if failure to read the entirety of your feed now effectively means you cannot reasonably recover that information later. A Twitter feed is strictly chronological, so although you have to scroll down a lot, you can reasonably pick up where you left off, making it the worst acceptable situation for this requirement – anything worse is really bad. Once you let time pass, any sort of attempt to recover what has been lost on Facebook is quite time consuming.
5: You need to be in control and avoid things that are out to get you
This means both the sense of ‘this Facebook habit is out of control and ruining my life’ and the more basic sense of ‘Facebook does not give me control over the News Feed.’ Facebook fails horribly on both counts. Staying in control is tough, but we strive to give ourselves a fighting chance!
Even if you avoid getting got by things that are out to get you, the need to do so almost always has a severe negative impact on the experience.
6: Contribute all worthy material to the collective commons
Anything you contribute, that might be of use to the world in the longer term (where the world can mean your friends up to the actual entire world) should be in a form where the world can use it and refer back to it, to build upon it. Facebook is very bad for this.
7: Reach those you want to reach
This one is tricky and situation-dependent, and the reason a lot of people who know better end up using Facebook anyway. I understand if this requires a little compromise.
Given that, what are our choices?
Known alternatives to using Facebook include actually meeting people in person (yes, it can be done!), phones, texting, Skype, chat rooms such as Discord or Slack, email, email groups, personal blogs, community blogs, forums and other social networks such as Twitter and Tumblr. Some things are hybrids of these (e.g. a Tumblr is a personal blog inside a social network).
What should we do?
Everyone should have an RSS reader of some kind. I use Feedly. If you do not have one, get one, and move as much of the internet that you follow onto your RSS reader. RSS readers allow you to quickly and easily know what has new content, track what you have and have not seen, and let you look at the parts of the world you are interested in today and not the ones you are not. They are a known great technology, and what makes it viable to follow all your friends’ personal blogs.
Use Facebook only for events, sharing contact information and messenger, and when absolutely necessary viewing of Facebook groups. For the few accounts that you simply have to keep watch over, use See First. With See First, they have given you a not out to get you tool, so use it while it lasts. View and use Facebook Groups the bare minimum amount you are socially forced to, and keep in mind that for posting that amount is probably zero.
You can also make a using-Facebook exception for posting links to your own posts elsewhere, but you have to feel bad about doing it. Do not consider this a ‘free action’ and strive to avoid it, but I understand if you feel it is necessary.
Use blogs to engage in discourse and to post anything public that will be of value more than a week in the future. Use an RSS reader to read other people’s blogs. If you are seeking truth, and that truth is longer lasting than ‘where shall we have lunch’ then help us create an archive and stand on the shoulders of giants. If you don’t have a blog, WordPress has been great for me and gives you an easy way to start.
Post your long form stuff to appropriate community blogs whenever possible. Again, this is the best thing for the long term, but it is important to make sure that the content fits where you are putting it. General note: If you ever feel that something I post here belongs on another site, ask me in the comments and I will likely be happy to share.
If you need to contact someone in real time, do it in person. If that is not practical, set up a video chat or phone call. If that is not practical, use email, text or messenger. Text and messenger are better for actual real time talk than email, but email prevents diversification of communication methods, so if it is almost as good, it should win. And in particular, go see your friends and family in person, or failing that call them. It is better.
If you need the people you know to know something, but not in real time, use email. Period. Email wins all ties. Email is the place-you-are-responsible-for-checking-periodically. If it reaches your email, and you do not see it after a reasonable amount of time, that’s on you. If it does not reach your email, it is on me. End of story.
Use email lists or Google Groups to coordinate among friends, even if there is a Facebook event. These technologies are known and they work well, and they invoke the rule that email equals awareness. Those not interested can easily mute the thread.
Use Twitter, optionally, to follow worthy accounts, engage in real time talk, and to share small things. Twitter is not out to get you and that is important, while the character limit enforces brevity, and it allows people to easily engage in conversation reasonably even if they do not know each other. If you tweet at high-status people they are likely to see it, you often get a response. This has its limits if you were to talk to Lady Gaga or Barack Obama, but you can absolutely get the attention of a Tyler Cohen or Marc Andreessen. If something pertains to them you can often get a retweet to call attention to a post or concept. My handle on Twitter is @TheZvi.
Read the good parts of Tumblr via RSS. It is much better than the dashboard and allows completionism. The world does not need more Tumblr blogs, as the comment/discussion methods are atrocious.
Avoid other social networks except for consumption via RSS. Adding more such places will only do even more damage than Facebook alone. Some more recent networks have some especially out to get you features that I basically can’t even. Definitely don’t get sucked into anything that disappears after 24 hours.
Use forums where they exist and are useful. They are not out to get you, but make sure nothing involved will force you to check in on them constantly – if so you will need email notifications that fix the issue. Otherwise, that would be bad.
Use other online communication methods sparingly. Slack, discord and other such things are fine in principle, but you want to minimize the number of such places, especially if they force you to check in. Assume there is a larger cost for using additional communication methods that your instincts would suggest.
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I mostly agree with this post (and the other Facebook post today), and appreciate them being written. Personally, I set the people whose posts I care about to “auto-notify”, which lets me mostly ignore the feed. But I feel like they don’t address some important issues that drive me to use Facebook. Even if there isn’t any good replacement in some cases, I feel like we should explicitly acknowledge that, so we can jump on one when it comes along.
The most obvious is engagement. When I write a blog post, I can track total pageviews, but I have no idea if anyone I care about saw it. When I comment on someone else’s blog, I don’t even have that. I assume Zvi will read this at some point, but will anyone else? No idea. It’s much more motivating to write for people I know than for a set of anonymous strangers.
I suspect that most people read all the comments on their own blogs, at least on recent posts, because commenting is usually so rare, but I only know (or am reasonably confident) of this in a few cases. In terms of engagement, I do agree that it seems like you can get a lot more comments (and likes) via Facebook by default, because people are currently treating Facebook posts as ‘comment is cheap’ and blog posts as ‘comment one time in 100-1000 posts.’ This is a problem both on the level of engagement, and also on the level of feedback. It is really scary to be writing a blog, even if you see the number of views, but get zero or one comments and have no idea how you are doing at all. It is even scarier to be optimizing for a Boolean metric that leads to a dystopian nightmare, but at least when you do that, you have some idea where you are at.
One thing we can do is start commenting a lot more on long form blog posts, similarly to the way we do on Facebook posts, even if it is only to express our appreciation for the post in a non-Boolean fashion.
As noted under your third comment (I saw these in reverse order) network effects are harsh.
There was also certainly a matter of Long Post Is Long and I didn’t want to go more overboard than I already had, especially in places where I admittedly don’t have a great solution yet since hard problem is hard.
Second issue is that I think for most people, each Facebook comment takes up less “space” than each email, allowing for longer, more in-depth discussions. A Facebook thread I started a few weeks ago got something like three hundred comments; I assume most people would panic if they got three hundred emails in one day at random. Facebook also has two levels of nesting (comments organized per post, and then can be threaded within posts), while email only has one.
The way Gmail is structured, 300 replies to an email will show up as one email, but I admit that when things go to 300, an email list may no longer be optimal. I am a member of a list that will often get into the 50-100 range, and I think it still works well in that range for a group that is not too large, but I am sad that when the list does get into real discussions (a large minority of posts, but it happens) that the information involved is de facto lost forever.
Facebook at 2-level nesting is indeed much better than email at 1-level nesting, although far worse than 3+ level nesting. If Facebook was at 1-level I think that would be bad enough to encourage action. If you think that a thread/post you start might get to 300 comments/emails, I would suggest a blog post. In fact, the only place I regularly see and read discussions of anywhere near that size is Slate Star Codex.
Third issue is the Schelling point effect; I want to post things to Facebook because I want people to read them, and the readers are mostly on Facebook. Obviously this is a bad equilibrium, but so is a global nuclear arms race, and saying that the nuclear arms race is bad doesn’t actually make the nuclear missiles go away.
Network effects are a problem, no question. Arguably they are THE problem, since we have to coordinate somewhere and better places are unlikely to overcome the current situation. There is certainly a point of view that on the margin, fighting the evil empire makes everyone worse off. I choose to fight anyway, but I do not think the decision theory here is obvious.
> Some more recent networks have some especially out to get you features that I basically can’t even.
What are some examples?
The two I was thinking of were the deletion of posts after a day, and the thing where they track who has liked more of whose posts and draw an icon by each person accordingly. That is pretty brutal.
You missed that the Facebook app is buggy as hell, and Facebook has deliberately de-prioritized bug fixing because empirical testing determines it doesn’t lower engagement:
Did not know about that one! I bet I missed a LOT of things…
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So how much of a solution / how plausible a solution is “get everyone to move to Dreamwidth”?
Well, my first response was, what’s Dreamwidth? Without knowing the details, I think I would prefer that to the current equilibrium, but that project seems very hard. If it has selling points I should know about, I want to know, and if you have a practical plan, would be curious, but sounds really hard.
Yes, no real plan unfortunately. Seems basically impractical, though could at least be pointed out as option to new people wanting to make own blog / move off of Facebook for posting long things.
I will admit posting this largely out of frustration that, y’know, LiveJournal predates these later, worse networks (Facebook, Tumblr), provides a perfectly good blogging platform with “social networking” features built in, and yet it (as well as its clone Dreamwidth, which is probably a better choice these days rather than LiveJournal, especially now that LJ no longer has such significant network effects) somehow gets completely ignored as an option, resulting in this apparent dichotomy between “good blogging platform” (e.g. WordPress) and “has social networking features” (e.g. Tumblr) that just doesn’t need to exist, rather than out of any real plan or hope of such a thing happening. But I thought at least I would point it out as something that could maybe be recommended to people.
I used to have a LiveJournal, and moved here for three reasons. One, LJ got taken over by people I did not have faith in to preserve the site and my data, but this was after things were already bad there. Two, everyone else left destroying the network effects. So again, after things got bad. Three, WordPress does seem to be easier to use if you don’t have an additional tool for creating posts and doing other management (I presume LJ had such tools if I had to look). So basically no real excuses there.
You could argue that the very fact that it was a social networking site made it appear ‘not serious’ and thus people who wanted to be serious left, whereas it was a crappy social network as a network, missing a bunch of other features, so those users split off to Facebook/Tumblr. That seems like a plausible theory.
If that theory is correct, you would want something that either
A] Had the full set of social features, complete with groups, events, messenger and so forth, but also offered a good format for longer/serious posts
B] Had better social/other features than WordPress while still presenting as fully ‘serious’.
Note that WordPress does have liking of posts, sharing of posts, and following of Blogs (I don’t use it because of RSS being better, but might start doing it to let people know I am following them?), and gives you an identity when you comment that links to your blog. That’s not nothing. One can imagine extending that.
One brainstorm I had right now is that you kind of want there to be classes of posts that can be viewed with different methods. So we could split off into at least serious-permanent-long vs. casual-temporary-short, and people could follow one but not the other, or view a ‘casual feed’ some times and a ‘serious feed’ other times. Then one could move on to following via tags (e.g. you could follow posts marked Rationality but not ones marked Gaming, or vice versa, etc). Dunno if it’s all worth the complexity cost.
If we could get control of our social graphs so we could auto-port them across platforms, that would also be huge, but how to get there?
…and, WordPress seems to have dumped my comment into the spam filter. Would you mind fishing it out? Thank you!
(WordPress seems to be convinced I’m a spammer lately, I don’t know why, but this has been happening all over the internet.)
Seems like it has a fine RSS, so starting a blog at dreamwidth rather than wordpress/blogger/etc seems fine for anyone who likes dreamwidth. But I don’t particularly see its appeal over blogger/wordpress.
I’m currently without my laptop for two months and don’t have the Facebook app (I do have FB Messenger). I’ve noticed that I don’t miss Facebook at all. That as well as your posts made me decide to use Facebook less (practical plans: when I find myself scrolling the feed aimlessly, find something else to read (a book/RSS feed/etc), leave specific groups that don’t add value for me). Thank you!
nice to see the blog…tqs
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I grapled with this idea for a long time (and how to make facebook work in my favour ) but this article really helped me put things in place so to speak. ANyways, this is how i overcame facebook addictive features and made it work for me:
1. Use feedly for everything you want to follow that is on Fb and can be followed on feedy ( feedly gets advantage if its on both platforms) and unsubscribe from fb for the same page/person
2.instal social fixer chrome add on for facebook . It fixes the issue of constantly having to see post you already saw. You just click on a small ”check ” sign on top of every post and it wont show up again. For this to be meaningful and work , you should not follow 10000 people. Limit the amout of stuff you follow (this ties into 1. )
2a) social fixer also has ‘stealth mode’ where it forbids you to like and comment – so you lower your interaction
What I do is convert pages to atom feeds and filter these feeds with a blacklist, then send the updates as e-mail messages to a particular inbox. That way I don’t have to waste time with content I already know I don’t want to see, as it is all filtered automatically. Plus some keywords are highlighted to make it easier to eyeball some categories of content.
The process is similar when feeds don’t exactly apply, like for price monitoring on Amazon. Extract the price, compare with the stored value, send an update e-mail if it decreased and is below the target.
I can easily check 1000+ pages multiple times per day and not see a single advertising.
Worth noting that Messenger has ads now. It’s not as Out To Get You as the newsfeed, but it’s annoying as hell, it pays them money and there are so many truly free competitors that I’d be sad about a norm of using it. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a great alternative.
Very sad and very annoying! I have been desperately sending messages to Facebook’s feedback teams arguing against Ads in Messenger. I’ve also significantly reduced my activity on Messenger as a consequence. In hindsight, this is positive because I’m saving time and gaining productivity on my social media interactions.
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