Cool? Or Obsolete?
Of course it isn’t breaking news that Facebook isn’t cool anymore. In fact, probably anyone you ask will tell you that Facebook is obsolete. Oh BTW, it turns out that being obsolete is way cooler than being cool. Here’s the guy who died in 1980 yet understood 2016 better than anyone alive today to explain it:
If it works, it’s obsolete. And it’s only when a thing has become obsolete that everybody is sufficiently familiar with it to make it work. Our motorcars were obsolete long ago, but that means they’re really going concerns… Obsolescence does not mean the conclusion but rather the beginning of a process as far as everyday life is concerned.
— Marshall McLuhan1
6 or 7 years ago my students loved Facebook. Today they use it. Today it is functional. But the love is gone. It is a utility. It is a way to talk to old people. Even if once upon a time Facebook started life as a way to talk to young people.
Funny thing: back when my students thought Facebook was cool, it had about 500 million users. Today when nobody thinks it’s cool, it has about 1.7 billion users. McLuhan was right: being boring is being a huge success.
Like us on Facebook!
What made me think about this today was a newsletter I got from Republic Services. Republic Services is the company that collects the trash at my house every Thursday. Not surprisingly, the Republic Services newsletter included the familiar refrain,
Like us on Facebook!
It’s reasonable for Republic Services, or anyone else, to utilize the communications tools of the day. In fact it’s good. It would be lame if you couldn’t communicate with services via the popular tools of the day.
Reasonable, but also like see our ad in the Yellow Pages. It’s not the way anybody young or engaged finds the cool club to go dancing at.
In 2016 my students love Snapchat. Snapchat is the coolest. On the way from Facebook to Snapchat the baton was passed to Instagram for a while. BTW Facebook owns Instagram. And put up $3 billion in a failed effort to own Snapchat too. A year later Facebook put up $19 billion in a successful effort to own WhatsApp.
Is the West still Wild?
There’s nothing particularly bad about a platform like Facebook being obsolete and quietly dominant. The question for me is whether or not The Internet, Broadband, and Mobile, are all obsolete? In books like The Master Switch and Captive Audience thinkers like Tim Wu and Susan Crawford examine the process by which our open New Media has matured into closed media.
In 1850 you could start a newspaper for $10 thousand. In 1950 $10 million. The difference between $10 thousand and $10 million is the difference between starting a newspaper for any reason, and having to have a business model, venture capital, and a board of directors.2
In 2016 anyone can have a website. In fact it’s easier and cheaper to create a website in 2016 than it was in 1996. The question is no longer whether you can speak. The question today is whether you can be heard.
I’m ashamed to admit that there once was a day when I cheered Facebook’s cleanliness after all the animated gifs and slow or never loading pages of Myspace. Today I feel just the opposite. Facebook is the place where you can have any color you want, as long as it’s blue. The chaos of Myspace represented a mountain of freedom and individual expression. Freedom we barely noticed that we’ve lost.
The Useful vs The Interesting
By using Facebook Pages, Instagram posts, LinkedIn Profiles, Snapchat Stories, and many other online tools, people today are building audiences, brands, and careers. This is a good thing. I should be happy. I should use these tools.
Still, I feel a sense of loss for a wild, less mature, less useful Internet without rules where peeps just made shit up and explored. Building skyscrapers is good for capitalism. Spelunking in the cave of the unknown is good for the human spirit.