Today a non-music post following on from some other posts: Beats, Windows 98-Style, Are Videogames The New Jazz, and an upcoming piece about how listeners interact with groove music e.g. at house parties.
Basically, last night in bed I woke up and started imagining how those communal grooving/listening situations might happen online.
Take the typical social media comments section, and substitute the comments with layered music tracks in a loop… so whereas in Soundcloud you can put a text comment on a precise moment of a song e.g. “sick bass drop yo”, what if you could drop in a clap or bell pattern, precisely in time, to someone else’s music… or maybe some VST– or SFXR-type customisable synth sounds.
That made me think about the expressive channels currently available on my main social network, Facebook. That’s when I made the connection to my 90s throwback article which celebrated the techno-creative possibilities we had in the late 90s. I realised that FB intentionally forbids a spectrum of modes of expression and features that were actually taken for granted two decades ago.
This isn’t a technophobic post. I’ve no problem with people spending hours staring at screens. If I’m criticising anything here, it’s greed, and also blind faith in free markets + engineers’ optimisation to make people happier.
Here are some ways you can’t express yourself on FB:
- pixel art or high-resolution art (because FB resizes and compresses all images)
- ACII art (because text layout can’t be controlled and you can’t switch to a monospaced font)
- decorative backgrounds
- choosing the colour of elements, choosing a colour palette
- making buttons or a user interface, trompe d’oeil/mimicking visual elements
- laying out a page (the only option is, like with long posts on Twitter, to make a screenshot and share as a picture, but that loses the text data)
- sharing sound snippets
- italics, bold text, underlining
You are even discouraged from making your own smilies because they won’t register with the system that converts them to a little cartoon.
20 years ago, anyone making a personal webpage had all of these features at their fingertips. Forums and other communities allowed some of them too.
How about more mundane capabilities?
- proper hyperlinks (FB lets you put links but without changing the text, and encourages one link per post by allowing a single preview pane; linking to other posts is limited/bogey in a number of ways… sponsored posts can’t be linked to, preview panes are generated in comments but not in news posts, and linking to an old post of yours presents the content with the text removed)
- searchable posts (because FB’s model is based on feeding you algorithmically selected new material or else you stalking people’s profiles… so they can’t give you ways to find old posts)
- choosing what you see, not just blocking vaguely defined content or blocking people
- tags (unlike the other features I’ve mentioned, this is modern, from 2007)
- metrics i.e. how many views you get (obviously, FB want you to pay for this information by buying sponsored posts)
- publically editable posts a la Wiki
Will this change? I doubt it. Facebook have something that makes money for them. Perhaps the mass market (which is obviously what a social media site aims for) will never care enough to want those features. But if they were there, we’d be spending our time in a space that felt a lot less grim and robotic, and maybe, if we could play with and surprise each other, we’d be less grim and robotic.
Rant over. As usual, I’d love to hear your comments!
Let me anticipate a couple of objections. Yes, there are hundreds or thousands of websites where you can express yourself in these ways. But a lot of them work on the same formulaic, business-like assumptions of Facebook – that we are all just trying to promote and brand ourselves. Anyway, I think it’s fair to criticise a site where we spend a lot of time and which makes every effort to keep us there.
Oh and I should say that I recognise how useful many of Facebook’s features are, i.e. events and band pages. (I think that intersection of personal scale with a small organisation or business’ scale is where the site works best.) I just think we’d be better off if we could pay for those features straight out rather than by participating in the rote “interaction” of sharing itemised, cling-wrapped content.