Facebook Killed the Feed

There’s a movement to reclaim blogging as a vibrant, vital space in academia. Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Alan Jacobs have written about their renewed efforts to have smart exchanges of ideas take place on blogs of their own. Rather than taking place on, say Twitter, where well-intentioned discussions are easily derailed by trolls, bots, or careless ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or on Facebook, where Good Conversations Go to Die™.

Kathleen recently put it more diplomatically:

An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

You can’t overstate this point about the isolation of blogs. I’ve installed FreshRSS on one of my domains (thanks to Reclaim Hosting’s quick work), and it’s the first RSS reader I feel good about in years—since Google killed Google Reader. I had TinyRSS running, but the interface was so painful that I actively avoided it. With FreshRSS on my domain, I imported a list of the blogs I used to follow, pruned them (way too many have linkrotted away, proving Kathleen’s point), and added a precious few new blogs. FreshRSS is a pleasure to check a couple of times a day.

Now, if only more blogs posts showed up there. Because what people used to blog about, they now post on Facebook. I detest Facebook for a number of reasons and have gone as far as you can go without deleting your Facebook account entirely (unfriended everyone, stayed that way for six months, and then slowly built up a new friend network that is a fraction of what it used to be…but they’re all friends, family, or colleagues who I wouldn’t mind seeing a pic of my kids).

Anyway, what I want to say is, yes, Google killed off Google Reader, the most widely adopted RSS reader and the reason so many people kept up with blogs. But Facebook killed the feed.

The kind of conversations between academics that used to take place on blogs still take place, but on Facebook, where the conversations are often locked down, hard to find, and written in a distractedsocialmediamultitaskingway instead of thoughtful and deliberative. It’s the freaking worst thing ever.

You could say, Well, hey, Facebook democratized social media! Now more people than ever are posting! Setting aside the problems with Facebook that have become obvious since November 2016, I counter this with:

No. Effing. Way.

Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.

To prove my point I offer the following prediction. This post, which I admit is not exactly the smartest piece of writing out there about blogging, will be read by a few people who still use RSS. The one person who subscribes to my posts by email (Hi Mom!) might read it. Maybe a dozen or so people will like the tweet where I announce this post—though who knows if they actually read it. And then, when I drop a link to this post on Facebook, crickets. If I’m lucky, maybe someone sticks the ? emoji to it before liking the latest InstantPot recipe that shows up next in their “feed.”

That’s it. Junk food.

Facebook versus Twitter

Facebook is the past, Twitter is the future.

Or phrased less starkly, Facebook reconnects while Twitter connects.

All of my friends on Facebook are exactly that: friends from real life, or at the very least, people whom I actually know. Colleagues, students, family members, former classmates, childhood friends. A significant chunk of those Facebook friends are ghosts from the past, people whom I haven’t seen, spoken to, or even thought of in years, maybe decades. Facebook has reconnected me — albeit in a very superficial sense — to these people. I’d even estimate that friends from my past now outnumber current friends and acquaintances on Facebook. Given the exponential algorithm driving the growth of social networks (like the old Faberge shampoo commercial, you tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on), it’s not surprising that these reconnections to the past began with a single high school friend, last seen at our graduation in 1989. The ripple effect from this single act of “friending” led to dozens of acquaintances from my hometown.

The reciprocal nature of “friendship” on Facebook reinforces the site’s re-networking aspect. You can only befriend people who have befriended you. Facebook’s insistence upon reciprocity appealed to me at first, ensuring that nobody could lurk on my profile without likewise surrendering their own profile to me. Yet this feature, that I found so comforting when I first dipped into social networking, I now find to be confining, perhaps even the greatest limitation of Facebook. Reciprocity guarantees a closed platform, a fixed loop that cannot expand beyond itself.

This stands in contrast to Twitter, where reciprocity is not required. You can follow someone without them following you. The effect of this asymmetric system is that many of the people I follow I have never met. And I may never. Likewise many of my followers are absolute strangers. Yet many of them share interests with me: pedagogy, literature, digital humanities, even music (at least two of my followers added me after I wrote about the band Shearwater). So this is what I mean when I say Twitter connects.

There is another crucial difference between Facebook and Twitter that associates the former with the past and the latter with the future. Even with its new layout and feed, Facebook does not truly operate in real time. Facebook is still something like a bulletin board. My status updates, therefore, tend to be sly comments or key links that I’ve thought about and pondered and that I want to remain “active” for a day or two. Constant status updates would quickly get lost in the clutter of irritating quiz results, meaningless gift hugs, and holiday Peeps that populate the Facebook news feed.

Twitter conversely offers a more stream-of-consciousness aesthetic. If I immediately follow one tweet with another, I’m not so concerned that the first is going to get lost, as my followers are seeing a feed of my tweets in whatever application they’re using. It is also a matter of one or two clicks (depending on your Twitter client) to see my Twitter posts in aggregate, something much more difficult to achieve in Facebook.

So, to be systematic about the differences between Facebook and Twitter, I present this chart:

Facebook Twitter
past future
reconnect connect
static dynamic
closed open
pond stream

The last distinction — pond versus stream — evokes the dominant ecology of each social network. And I for one would rather be in the flowing stream than the stagnant pond.

Facebook, Intellectual Property, and Why am I not richer than I am?

I am glad to see that Facebook relented and reverted back to its old Terms of Service. Having had my likeness used without my permission (you know who you are, Kirk Cameron), my songs stolen from me repeatedly (yes, I’m looking at you Beyoncé), and even movie ideas ripped off (see below), I was appalled that Facebook would own my intellectual property in perpetuity. Now I may rest easy and continue to pour my abundant creative energies into the production of easily digestible and ransackable culture.

Leaves of Clover
Click picture for larger image

25 Random Things about Me (Breakfast Edition)

I must be desperate for content. I spent some time last week fulfilling my “25 Random Things” Facebook viral meme obligations. I am reposting that list here, for the benefit of those three readers of mine who are not yet on Facebook. And to make it look like I’ve written twice as much as I really have.

25 Random Things about Me (Breakfast Edition)

1. I once covered an entire wall of my apartment with hundreds of empty cereal boxes. This was before my town had recycling and I was sick of throwing away all those cardboard boxes (roughly four a week). So I built a wall. I like to think it was strong enough to keep out even the Kool-Aid Man (who, I should remind readers, was not a man at all).

2. I used to live near a General Mills Cheerios factory. Cheerios taste better than the factory smell would lead you to believe.

3. I’ve always felt that I had a special connection with Bob Evans, the man. The origins of this connection are hazy, but it must have something to do with my grandmother and scrapple.

4. Studying abroad in Russia, I had cold pickled fish for breakfast every day for four weeks. It was the USSR back then and I felt that I was somehow doing my part to maintain Soviet austerity. Many of my fellow Americans skipped out on breakfast, instead waiting hours in line at the single McDonald’s in Moscow to stock up on bagfuls of Big Macs, which they would then parcel out, cold and soggy, over the space of several days.

5. My brothers and I rarely had any kind of sweetened cereal. But every once in a while, Lucky Charms would magically be there in the pantry. I wonder now what were those special occasions that prompted my parents to buy them.

6. I find it strangely comforting that the bits of fruit in any flavor of Quaker Instant Oatmeal are apple. Apples & Cinnamon, of course. But also Peaches & Cream, Strawberries & Cream — they’re all pieces of apple. It reminds me of the 11″ GI Joes, all made from the same mold with simply different configurations of facial hair and scars.

7. I will burn my passport the day that there are more Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in Spain than churrerías. Why bother traveling at all anymore?

8. I can’t eat quiche lorraine without thinking of Uriah Heep’s 1972 classic “Sweet Lorraine.” And then I think of their ode to Arthurian legend, “The Wizard.” Then I think of Gandalf. Which makes me think of Sir Ian McKellan. After that, the links in the chain grow fuzzy, but somehow I end up thinking about Chuck E. Cheese’s hound dog friend, Jasper T. Jowls.


9. Bagels did not exist in northeastern Ohio when I was growing up. I had never even heard the word until college. And lox? Forget about it. As far as I knew, that was some strange Dr. Suess beast.

10. I often wonder what Bigfoot eats for breakfast. Does the Missing Link understand the concept of brunch?

11. The latest (or depending where you stand, earliest) that I’ve ever been at an IHOP is 3:37am.

12. My in-depth qualitative research has proven that the best diners in America are to be found in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They serve breakfast 24/7 and they usually have “Star” in their name.

13. I have a can of Spam from 1987. While technically this should go in the Meat Edition of 25 Random Things about Me, I must point out that I often ate fried Spam for breakfast in the eighties.

14. I once broke into a friend’s dorm room and removed all the marshmallows from his Lucky Charms, one marshmallow at a time. He had his revenge by clipping my car’s brake cable. Ironically I crashed into a Perkins.

15. You will never convince me that there is not a food in this world that cannot be made better with a generous sprinkling of Betty Crocker Baco’s brand bacon bits.

16. Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear and have their heads crushed like rotten apples! You may as well say, that’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.

17. 17, for the number of times in my life I have poured orange juice into my cereal bowl.

18. When I was nine I once at a dozen donuts in one setting. I’m not talking tiny donuts or donut holes. I’m talking big mothereffing donuts, with frosting and filling and glaze and sprinkles.

19. In grade school, when the Mikey-from-Life-commercials-died-of-exploding-Pop-Rocks rumor raced around the school, I punched my neighbor in the stomach just because.

20. My favourite Pink Floyd song is “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” from the album Atom Heart Mother. It should be your favourite Pink Floyd song too. Interestingly enough, this song was the first of Pink Floyd’s famous breakfast trilogy cycle, the second and third parts being “Have a Cigar” and “Young Lust.”

21. An old roommate, Matt Federer, taught me to use blueberry muffin mix as pancake batter. Because of this, Matt later went on to win $30 million in the Ohio Lottery.

22. I feel sad that my cats eat the same food in the morning that they eat every other hour of the day. Yet I would happily eat breakfast myself for every meal. This is called Cultural Relativism. Or American Exceptionalism. I forget which.

23. After my first communion, I was deathly afraid for several years that I would accidentally break the no-food-one-hour-before-Eucharist decree. Jesus, I was told, likes to have my belly all to himself.

24. In the summer of 2000 I drove from Philadelphia to the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, hot on the trail of the fugitive bomber Eric Rudolph. For three days I camped in the same forest as Rudolph and ate baked beans cold from a can for breakfast.

25. No other meal comes close to the sheer variety of two-dimensional foods that breakfast affords: pancakes, Pop Tarts, sausage patties, French toast. All food that can be mailed in a flat envelope, should the need arise.

What happens on Facebook when we die?

Anybody who follows Facebook has probably heard about the user who found it impossible to delete his account; even after he deactivated his profile, it showed up in searches and various Facebook news feeds.

If you can’t get out of Facebook when you’re alive, what happens when you die?

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

Sadly, this is not a rhetorical question. I’ve had two Facebook friends—first a colleague (and true friend) and second a former student last month—pass away. Yet their Facebook pages persist, digital ghosts with mini-feeds still growing, updated with the usual nonsense and noise (“Mike joined the group Free David Hasselhoff” and “Barrald Terrence and Will Navidson are now friends”) that fill anybody’s Facebook feeds.

In fact, in the second case, I only found out about my student’s death from a terse, surreal update to her profile by a family member, which then showed up in my Facebook news feed. Her Facebook profile has since become a kind of memorial, with dozens of friends writing their goodbyes on her “wall.”

In the first case, nobody has written on my friend’s wall in the six months since he died, though he was loved and respected by hundreds of people across the country. I suspect the difference between my student and my friend’s post-mortem Facebook activity is generational; digital mourning, at least in a consumer-oriented space like Facebook, is considered insensitive or insincere by anyone over the age of 30. And so my friend’s profile is eerily silent, his feed simply stating with no irony that he “has no recent activity.”

I imagine that eventually Web 2.0 will catch up with real life and incorporate grieving into its ecological landscape. Maybe this will be the beta version of Web 3.0.

I don’t know which is creepier: a Facebook engine that doesn’t know when we die and carries on as if we hadn’t; or a Facebook engine that somehow taps into public records and newspaper obituaries, detecting when we die, and initiates a sort of prescribed last will and testament profile update, a more tactful 404 error message.