Welcome to NetworkEffect!
Hi there, I’m Liz Gannes.
You may know me from my writings at GigaOM, where I covered topics like the social Web and online video for the last four years. If this is your first time reading me, I hope you’ll find my writing, reporting and analysis worth sticking around for.
My beat at All Things Digital is All Things Social, and you’ll be able to find my stories under the heading NetworkEffect, named after the idea that a community of users makes a service valuable for everyone who joins.
On the social Web, network effects help us improve the lives of our friends, family and neighbors, when we sign up for the same Web services and share our lives and experiences; they also factor in the power of critical mass to create new businesses from scratch. In the six years I’ve been a tech reporter, companies I’ve watched being born–such as Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube–have come to be major parts of people’s lives around the world. And I think that’s pretty awesome.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Example du jour: In this month’s New York Review of Books, the author Zadie Smith (whose novels I like very much) applied her considerable forces of perception to Facebook and the implications of its creation myth. Smith’s credentials to analyze Facebook are: She was a fellow at Harvard University when it was founded, she spent only two months trying the service before leaving it, she’s a full nine years older than Mark Zuckerberg (ancient!), and she calls herself a “private person.”
In her piece, Smith charged that Facebook encourages highly superficial, low-effort communication that threatens to replace actual relationships and experiences. She cited Jaron Lanier to assert that computers cannot represent actual human relationships, and, further, that the limitations of a tool can shape what its users think is possible.
So, basically, Facebook is devaluing the way we relate to each other.
Smith thinks her problems with Facebook come back to the site being created by Zuckerberg as an immature college sophomore who desperately wanted to be liked. “If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out,” she wrote. “[T]o Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”
If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.
Smith noted in the piece that she doesn’t actively use Facebook herself, but she looked up some of Zuckerberg’s recent public comments and keenly observes that the Facebook CEO “uses the word ‘connect’ as believers use the word ‘Jesus,’ as if it were sacred in and of itself.”
Personally, I see my relationships extended and improved on Facebook, whether it’s knowing what my extended family is up to on a daily basis, or the great conversations I’ve had in the past few days about Death Valley, after I posted an album of pictures from my between-jobs road trip to the desert last week.
Still, I don’t often find visiting Facebook to be deeply satisfying either. But, whereas Smith sees reasons to run away screaming, I see an opportunity to better address some of the parts she finds lacking.
The real story here?
It’s about the capability of the social Web to improve so it better serves and extends our real-world relationships. It’s about the fact that these sites and apps are created by people whose versions of the world are expressed in them. It’s about the potential to communicate with people you don’t know, to cultivate and reward passionate fans and to learn the dark art of self-promotion. It’s about the wide-open opportunity to improve on and compete with Facebook, which is still really far away from delivering on its potential to improve the lives of the half-billion people who already use it regularly and the many more who don’t. Simply put, there’s a lot more to be done.
And that’s what I want to write about.
(P.S. As detailed in my ethics statement, which I will keep updated, my husband is a part-time employee at Facebook. His work is not a part of my reporting, and I obviously find the company fascinating and will not shy away from writing about it–both the good parts and the bad ones. )