Updated: May 10
I first opened a Facebook n account about five years ago. I’m interested in technology and in communication, and I’d put email down as one of the things that I would find it genuinely hard to be without. So I wasn’t someone who was instantly going to dismiss Facebook. I hooked up after conversations with colleagues who used it, just to have a look. I was immediately uncomfortable with the amount of personal information people shared about themselves on this public service. And I couldn’t understand how people found the time to play all those games.
When I told my colleagues – mainly younger and mainly women – I wasn’t keen, I’m pretty sure I came across as a middle-aged bloke stuck in his ways. But I didn’t have a problem with social networking or technology or new things – I liked all of those things. I just didn’t like Facebook. It made me feel uncomfortable, it was intrusive and vaguely creepy and it sucked up vast amounts of time.
One of those colleagues, Emma Justice – now of Company magazine – interviewed me for a piece in The Times about people who committed ‘Facebook suicide’. In it, I’m quoted as saying, after deactivating my account: “It all felt a bit stalkerish, the way that you could find out what people were doing almost daily, see pictures of them (or yourself) that other people had posted and trawl through other people’s lists of friends to see who you knew.” That was four years ago. So what’s changed?
The biggest change in my life is that I went freelance after being on staff for the best part of 20 years. One of my first freelance gigs was teaching production journalism at the London College of Communication. What I noticed pretty quickly was how the students, almost of them in their early 20s, were not only on Facebook almost permanently organising their lives, they were using it to source stories, check facts, crowdsource advice and resources.
One of the basic points I used to emphasise to the students, and to some of the college hierarchy, was that it was the message, not the medium, that was important and that whatever the technology it was important to remember that we could control it. And yet I’d initially seen Facebook as something that had to be used in a way I wasn’t comfortable with. I took the point on board, but I still didn’t go back to Facebook.
The reason I didn’t was because I didn’t think I needed to. To prepare for the jump into freelancing I’d taught myself the basics of blogging and setting up a website. I had an online presence. I use email a lot – really, a lot. And I’d also opened up a Twitter account. Twitter was useful, quick, direct. I got leads and advice, made connections, learned stuff. I also started to make friends through Twitter – mainly connected with journalism and communication, but i was building a network and finding out about people that I’d never met in person.
I was also suspicious of the libertarianism and utilitarianism surrounding Facebook. I didn’t like what I heard about how the service seemed to play fast and loose with personal information, or how frequent changes and upgrades made controlling what you shared and what you didn’t very difficult. And I didn’t like what Mark Zuckerberg said about privacy being an outdated concept. His view that once everything was totally transparent the world would be a better place also seemed incredibly naive.
But as the months went by I had to confront a simple fact. Facebook, increasingly, was where conversation was happening, information was being exchanged, business was being done. It was being used casually, naturally, to form what the writer Steven Johnson has called the social graph. Every year I have a day with an old mate at The Oaks at Epsom. He’s about the same age as me and we meet, head for the common ground, lay a few bets, drink too much beer, eat fried food and watch a wonderful sport. As we stood in the sun he snapped a picture on his mobile, then showed it to me after he’d uploaded it to Facebook. It was as natural an action as ordering a pint.
Friends were Facebooking music clips, holiday pics, travel arrangements, mini-reviews, random observations. I met up with an old boss, the music journalist and publisher David Hepworth, who said that he liked Facebook because “it reminds you when people’s birthdays are”. My wife, who is very sceptical about how much we are coming to rely on gadgets and the cloud and electronic comms, upgraded to a smartphone and went onto Facebook. We discovered some old freinds we had lost touch with, including one who had got married in New York and now lives in Australia. We’d last met in Cardiff and we’re pleased to be back in touch.
Meanwhile, I quietly reactivated my account. A friend had told me to check a particular page out, so I did. I was back on, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. But some family I hadn’t heard from for years spotted me and got in touch. I hooked up my Tweetdeck account to Facebook and watched, out of the corner of my eye, as people’s lives unfolded and information flowed. I set up a Facebook Page to publicise my books, because it was becoming obvious that Facebook was a vital commercial platform. And I began to get friend requests. One even from a member of the Spurs team I wrote a book about!
I realised I was being drawn back in. So a few days ago I sent friend requests to all the contacts in my book. I reinstalled the Facebook link on my blog. I am risen from the Facebook dead.
There have been a few wry comments about ‘deserters’ returning, and I’m sure more than a few of my friends are chuckling as they remember how stubborn and argumentative I can be. But, yes, you can have it in writing – I’ve changed my view. I’m back on Facebook because that is where a significant section of our existence is being conducted. Commercially, professionally, personally, I think I lose more by not being part of it than by opting in.
I still don’t like some of the corporate philosophy. And I’m still amazed at the stuff people share and the naivety they show. On my ‘Getting a Job in Journalism’ course I advise those, mainly young, students who attend to do a social audit “and remove all those pictures of you snorting coke at the student party before your prospective employer checks them out”. The idea that employers would do this comes as a revelation to most.
But, as Steven Johnson says in a thought-provoking Wired feature, “there are over-sharers out there, but there were over-sharers in the age of the town square and the telephone too”. While I made much of the fact that we were obsessing with the medium rather than the message and that we should remember it is humans who control technology, I seemed to take a different view when it came to Facebook. I’ve wondered whether what I am really arguing is that I now think Facebook is serious enough to use because it’s not just gossip and daft games, but I quite like the gossip and the daft games – and I’ve certainly never been averse to whiling away time on relatively trivial stuff. (The process usually involves a pint and football).
So here I am, back on Facebook because this is where we live. It’s no big deal, I’m just one in 600 million+. But it’s been an instructive journey.