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Oct 10 11

My Time Isn’t Facebooked

by Editor

Over the last few weeks, I have been complaining on Twitter and Facebook about the underwhelming nature of the changes that Facebook has been making to its user interface and, in particular, it’s timeline. It isn’t that I see anything sinister or malicious in what Facebook is doing; I doubt they’re being any more aggressive than they already were about using knowledge of us for their own remunerative purposes. It’s just that these changes are poorly designed: Facebook seems to have a one dimensional view of how people might want to use their little self-contained universe to share information. And I seem to be outside that singular dimension.

I don’t have 4,000 Facebook “friends.” I don’t even have 400 Facebook friends, nor do I necessarily aspire to have that many. It’s not that I am an ardent devotee of “Dunbar’s Number“—I think people can have a wide circle of friends, in varying degrees of connectedness—but I do think that there are limits to how much information one can truly absorb about people within these different circles, and how close those relationships can actually be.

So to the extent that Facebook, too, has recognized this issue (in light of the ease-of-use of Google+‘s “circles” approach), I’m irritated by the change but can get on board with it. It’s fine to define people as “friends” versus “acquaintances,” and certainly there are a couple of Facebook friends I have “met” only through other friends and would surely place in that latter category. But there’s something irritating about the retroactive nature of this process—of having to go back and reestablish your connection to each of the (in my case) 194 people with whom you have a connection, in order to sort out the flow of information you will see from them. Facebook thinks it can do this automatically, but it can’t—not accurately, anyway.

Which leads me to my other complaint, one that is not a mere irritation but has actually brought me to the point of using Facebook less and less frequently: the over-curation, rather the automatic curation, of the timeline. This sounds silly, no doubt, especially if you’re a Facebook user with several hundred or even a few thousand friends: no one can wade through that much stuff, so having a set of filtering mechanisms is surely useful. I get it.

But let me turn them off. Because I don’t want them. And while you’re at it, Facebook, bring in someone new, someone with some common sense to help you with your user interface and control mechanisms.

With 194 friends, I can stay on top of things quite efficiently—when “stories” are chronological. Even as my network has grown, I have been able to manage that. I hide a few friends’ Farmville posts, I know I can usually (but not always) skip items from some other people. It’s very easy to scroll through a chronological list and see what’s there and what’s not. It’s much harder to do this when information is out of order—especially posts from the same person, where subsequent, more commented posts wind up as “Top Stories,” but have no evident antecedent because Facebook has decided to bury them. Or they wind up as posts in this ridiculous secondary timeline Facebook created, in the sidebar.

Reading this interview by Liz Gannes on AllThingsD with Facebook’s “Timeline product manager” Sam Lessin left me cold—and I think Facebook’s efforts are misplaced. All these “powerful” tools they’re talking about will make an already-too-complicated ecosystem even more complicated and harder to manage. It seems to me what people want to do is share information, and so to the extent that Facebook (and Twitter, and other systems) encourage that, well, great. But when it starts to become too complicated to share your own information, or to find other people’s information, then that system loses its power. In other words, Facebook is starting to turn into the Windows of social networks: it may be the dominant platform of its genre, but it’s poorly constructed, badly organized, and unnecessarily difficult to manage even simple tasks.

Why do I care? Perhaps I care more than many folks because I went through such a conscious exercise to get myself engaged in these systems in the first place. Maybe it’s because I work in communications, in a field that has come to rely on these tools as important mechanisms for sharing information. Maybe it’s because, as I type this on my MacBook Pro, drafting it in Evernote, getting ready to publish it through WordPress, and eventually to promote it through Twitter … it’s because Facebook has just become so damn inelegant.

Life is too short. I’ll keep using Facebook—I’m not quite ready to go cold turkey, though Sam Lessin is giving me reasons to reconsider down the line—but I already look at it much less than I used to. And I’m finding, in spite of myself, that there are indeed other engaging and valuable things I can do with my time.

UPDATE (10/14/11): Time Magazine has an essay from last week’s issue (subscription required) by Harry McCracken about Facebook. The subtitle says everything: “Will Facebook’s shift toward data sacrifice it’s soul?” McCracken is off on a slightly different argument–more focused on the underlying mechanisms than the user interface–but in my view they’re clearly related. There is a balance between data wonkiness and user satisfaction. Apple (as one example) strove hard to get that right. Facebook now seems to be leaning in the other direction.

Jun 14 11

Clinton’s Spring is Sprung

by Editor

Last night, while listening to NPR’s  “All Things Considered,” I heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say:

“If you believe that the freedoms and opportunities that we speak about as universal should not be shared by your own people — men and women equally — or if you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history and time will prove that.”

I stopped what I was doing and went back to the beginning of the story, to make sure I had the context right. I did. It was a news piece titled “Clinton Pushes African Nations To Break With Gadhafi,” in which NPR’s Michele Keleman reported on a meeting at the headquarters of the African Union in Ethiopia.

And so I listened to Clinton again, and all I could think about was the degree to which our government–nearly all of it, both the legislative and executive branches–is opposed to the Palestinian plan to declare independence this September. How do we align this with the view expressed above by our very own Secretary of State? We can’t. We justify a different policy perspective  with Israel / Palestine by declaring that the details are flawed, that the Palestinian’s step is out of sync with broader movements for peace, or by throwing up bogus defense arguments. (In his “Daily Dish” column on Sunday, Andrew Sullivan had a great take on this.)

Searching for consistency in foreign policy is certainly a fool’s errand. After all, the same problem arises if we look at Bahrain, where we quietly support (through our lack of public opposition) that government’s brutal repression of protests–by people asking for the same things as those in Egypt and Libya: a more democratic, representative, and inclusive government. Our excuse here seems to be either that the protesters are Shia Muslims, and therefore implicitly allied with Iran, or that any change would endanger our massive military installation in Bahrain. But again, these are just excuses.

Hillary Clinton is right about the way the world is trending. Syria and Bahrain and other places may be on the longer, slower side of that curve, but change is coming. To Palestine, too. So perhaps the Department of State should take her advice and start getting behind legitimate movements for freedom a bit more energetically. Otherwise, it will be us that winds up on the wrong side of history.

May 31 11

Still Doing Laundry

by Editor

Ever since Jane Eisner’s opinion piece appeared in the Guardian last week — “Don’t be fooled by the applause, Binyamin Netanyahu” — I have seen a range of comments flying around by American Jews upset that Eisner not only chose to air her disagreements with Netanyahu and current Israeli policy in public, but that she did so in a foreign publication to boot. Many of the nearly five-hundred comments on the site make for disturbing reading, too.

To which I can only say: good on you, Ms. Eisner. American Jews have for too long been stuck in this vicious cycle of permitting outrageous Israeli actions (or outrageous actions by American supporters like AIPAC) without sufficient comment and criticism because of a fear of making their complaints too public. This trend has been on the wane, a bit, thanks in part to a younger generation of people — like Eisner, or Peter Beinart — who are less concerned with this problem and more interested in tackling the issues raised by Israeli intransigence around the peace process with Palestine.

It’s about time. Five years ago, I wrote that I believe “aired laundry dries faster.” Rather than shrink from public criticism, we instead have an obligation to voice it, loudly:

Well, we do have a right to question, and we should. “We” American Jews (and Americans generally, for that matter) provide billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year – billions through the U.S. government, and billions more through charitable organizations supporting the continued growth of the state of Israel – and that financial support entitles us to have a role in discussing how those funds are spent. But we cannot question the actions of the Israelis if we do not first question our own actions and motivations, and if we do not work to better understand ourselves and the needs of our own Jewish community – and this is the part that is missing. The American Jewish community needs more debate, more open discussion about whether our funding of the state of Israel is, in fact, having a negative effect; whether we are enabling Israel to fight instead of encouraging it to make peace; whether we are confusing Israel’s survival with the underlying quality of its existence; whether we are betraying our own Jewish morals and values by supporting an Israeli state that has so often failed to live up to those same values – values which it also espouses in equal measure. We need more voices like Mitchell Plitnick’s, willing to confront the monolith of establishment American Jewish opinion. AND, we need to stop forwarding, blindly and devoutly, every pro-Israel e-mail that comes across our path, because these e-mails contribute to a process of rote emotional response rather than engaged thought.

Keep that laundry out on the line!

May 22 11

Free At Last?

by Editor

Reading the news day after day, I find myself giddy at the prospect of the Palestinians unilaterally declaring independence. This step will force a decision by Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world on whether or not to recognize it—and how to embrace change after it happens.

First and foremost, the Palestinians deserve independence. They deserve a state—a homeland—of their own, formally, officially, and with the same status and international recognition that the Zionists themselves fought for in 1948. Palestinians also deserve a homeland free of occupying forces, and free from the arbitrary application of laws and civil rights that have characterized the Israeli occupation. Historical arguments aside, Palestinians in the last 40+ years have asserted their identity and taken ownership of it, much the way that Jews themselves created the Zionist movement. Palestinians exist as a people, and they deserve their independence and the right to govern themselves.

As an American (and an American Jew) I find sustenance in the universal principles that served to underpin the creation of the United States. Our Declaration of Independence reads, in part: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” This aptly describes the situations of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, both under the repressive Egyptian and Jordanian regimes in the period before 1967, and under the Israelis in the years since. Americans have a moral obligation to support Palestinian efforts to achieve freedom the same way we sought such support in our own times of need.

At the same time, I believe that Palestinian independence will bring a kind of normalization—either that, or a real and true international isolation. An independent Palestine must find ways to coexist and trade with Israel; there is little choice, since developing into a military and economic equal will take decades. As part of coexistence, a Palestinian state will need to bring under control the most militant, anti-Israel factions within it: this new state cannot afford the reprisals that will come from Israel (or elsewhere) if Palestine is used as a home base for terrorism. In fact, Palestinians in an independent state will have lost their (already slim) justifications for such attacks, and the world will evolve to view these attacks as war, not as a fight for freedom. Palestine will not want to become a pariah state: the costs are too high, and they have too few internal resources to survive such a move.

Meanwhile, independence will also be good for the Israelis, even if current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the disingenuous ambassador Michael Oren, and others are too narrow-minded to realize it. A free Palestinian state will legitimize Israeli military action in the event that such provocations demand it. A Palestinian state will free tremendous Israeli resources—financial, military, and human—for other projects that will strengthen Israel itself. And just as the Palestinians will need to confront and manage some of the most extremist elements within their midst, so too will the Israelis, and their do-or-let-someone-else-die American Jewish underwriters: Israelis cannot afford to continue being provocateurs and agents of regional instability, and American Jews must stop their fear-mongering.

Yet another “Israel Day” parade is on the horizon in New York, and American Jews should use this event to ask themselves what they think they are celebrating, especially in an environment in which Israel has turned the universalist, post-Holocaust message of “Never again!” into a selfish joke: “Never again to us.” The original Zionist dream was one of hope: a homeland for a people seeking the stability of independence and self-governance. In the face of the “Arab spring” and the potential proliferation of freedom and democracy across the Middle East, now is the time for Israelis to confront their own failures of leadership and imagination, and to embrace change.