Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Myth of Utopian Online Communities

I have no problem with social networking sites. I have used them, and they can be a quick and easy way to connect or re-connect with people. But I don't think we can pin our hopes for a more communal future on these sites, which are generally run by corporations. Myspace is, of course, owned by News Corp. But Facebook remains independent, still run by the Harvard grad who started it. So this is the key to our utopian community!

Um... well....

Have you been on Facebook? I signed up reluctantly after I kept getting request from friends, and they are all pretty serious users, it seems. At first, I was getting bizarre emails daily, with these people sending me things that required me to add features to my page - you got a drink from X, Y wants to share a movie clip, Z wants to play you in this game. I didn't like the adding of these features because I didn't know what they were and I didn't want to get so involved in a website like this. To stay on message for this blog, I'll say that I wanted to read instead - you know, a book, a quiet, solitary book.

But I started writing this post because of this article by Jessica Guynn in the LA Times (linked from MediaBistro). It seems MoveOn.org is mad at Facebook for a new feature that allows users to "notify friends about movies they rent, items they auction and movie tickets they buy at partner sites elsewhere on the Web." They see this as too corporate and a violation of privacy. I'm sure they're right - but why are they surprised to find it on Facebook?

I was also surprised and creeped out by this article in the Boston Globe yesterday, by Robert W. Welkos (and also, originally, in the LA Times, as it turns out). It's about Paramount Vantage, the company behind the film version of Khaled Housseini's The Kite Runner, creating this network of "clubs" to promote the film to people who liked the book. Each club as a "captain," and the captain who pulls in the most members gets to share a meal with the author. But before you mutter "pyramid scheme," here's the film co.'s justification:
"We wanted to develop a platform to give those very engaged fans an opportunity to take their love of that book and spread it around and give them an opportunity to meet Khaled Hosseini," said Bladimiar Norman, head of interactive marketing at Paramount Vantage. "The idea is to allow word-of-mouth for the film to spread in the same way that love for the book spread by word-of-mouth."
I found this so odd. An opportunity? You're just creating a network of essentially unpaid help! And people are doing it! I'm all for helping the book and I've heard it's wonderful - though I was put off my Laura Bush's endorsement. Sorry, Housseini, guilt by association. I wonder, is the First Lady or even the President looking into becoming a "captain" for a DC club? But anyway, this is again a corporate giant creating a kind of social network in order to promote their product, something done in various forms, it seems to me, on social networking sites all the time. But if you put a feature on Myspace that allows unknown musicians to put up their music, that's great - how can you stop people from putting up their favorite song, which happens to be some bland corporate rock that already has millions of marketing dollars behind it? It's like when people call radio stations and request a song that's already on the station constantly - at some point, the marketing works and/or the product has some cultural resonance and people promote it themselves. People are not always going to promote indie music or publishers or bookstores.

As the kids say on these sites, sigh. All we can do as concientious consumers and readers is try to use these tools for good and not evil, right? But I can't get too upset by corporate infiltration of Facebook. That's my point. It's ripe for this kind of thing. Moveon should probably do just that. But if someone called as a "club captain" and tried to get me to join some group, saying "it'll be fun" and/or "do it for me - we're friends," I'd have to call foul. But I guess that's what I do after all - join Facebook and resist add-ons. That shouldn't make me feel any better than the person with every feature bouncing around their page - it just makes me feel better about my smugness. Harumph.

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