Best of 2009: If Facebook died

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Second Life logoFirst published October 2009

What if it stopped working? What if, one day, FaceBook suddenly and irrevocably ceased to exist?

Every morning now, when I boot up my computer and begin my ritual of Facebook, email and game culture news blogs, I ask myself that question. And, if it did die, how many people in my office would be immediately overwhelmed by a giant sense of loss and confusion?

Furthermore, how many people on my Friends List would I no longer have contact details for? How many would I continue to see 'outside of the computer'? Or, would I hope to catch them again on Xbox Live, or meet up with them in SecondLife, World of Warcraft, or in PlayStation's virtual construct, Home?

Just how many of my day's meaningful interactions would I lose?

I blame the Digital Distribution Summit: Small Games, Big Market for my recent musings. Held in Melbourne over three days last week, the event brought together game studios, developers and business investors to discuss the big business opportunities presented by the rapidly growing digital game distribution market.

The summit examined recently released statistics that indicate that the Australian game industry will increase from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion over the next five years, and that online and wireless games will constitute 60 per cent of the market by 2013.

The numbers aren't surprising, particularly for avid gamers and music lovers. For years, companies have been training us to accept and embrace digital goods over physical ones. Most notably, Apple turned the music world on its head when downloadable iTunes became the desirable alternative to shop-bought CDs and DVDs.

Then Microsoft unveiled the Xbox 360 and introduced gamers to the notion of 'microtransactions': small online purchases of game content, bought directly from Microsoft. At first it was just avatar pics, dashboard themes and additional DLC (downloadable content) for the game you'd just bought from EB Games. Now, however, all of the major devices and companies are cashing in, selling everything from Tokidoki-branded avatar clothing to video and TV content, experimental apps, premium DLC and entire games.

Of more interest to the Facebook addict is the integration of social networks. Photos taken with a Nintendo DSi can be directly uploaded to Facebook from any wireless hotspot. Xbox Live is soon to include Twitter, Facebook and Last.FM. Soon-to-be-released PS3 game Uncharted 2 will have options that allow the game to automatically update a Twitter account whenever a player earns a trophy, connects to a multiplayer game or finishes a level.

Economically and logistically, the trend towards the digital distribution of content is an obvious strategy. Doing away with physical goods drastically lowers production costs, eliminates the retail middleman and provides direct access to consumers. For us, the end users, this translates into a lower price point, an international scope and (hopefully) an improved, faster service.

But the change towards a greater reliance on digital distribution comes with a number of hidden price tags. One of these is the impact on our social networks and interactions.

To embrace the advantages of the digital age, we've had to create proxies of ourselves; virtual constructs, complete with profiles, gamertags, avatars and 'homes'. We've become transients, creating and recreating our likeness with each new technology.

Now, we're living web pages, uploading and downloading our experiences. People don't interact with us, they interact with our digital selves; updated daily with profile status changes and ever-evolving avatars.

Our Friends List is our new sense of community, as open or as closed as we choose it to be. Indeed, many of the digital goods we purchase serve only to recreate and supplicate our virtual identities. We've traded-in our IKEA-furnished brick and mortar homes for IKEA-furnished dwellings in SecondLife and Home.

In a sense, we've fundamentally shifted the space we occupy, handing over our lives and a large number of our social interactions to the devices and companies that provide them. Our proxies become dependent on a server on the other side of the world; our social networks on the proprietary-driven device we hold in our hand.

Of more portent, though, is the fact that, often, we don't own those identities, and they can be wiped at the whim of the provider. (Don't believe me? Just check that disclaimer you scroll over without reading when you sign up!)

Have we taken the first step towards 'trusting the computer' too much? And once we're adept at living through a proxy, will our flesh-and-blood friends and colleagues one day give way to new relationships with other 'slightly less human' constructs?

Or, is this a brave new arena, with a new set of rules and a new (possibly, exciting) definition for the phrase 'meaningful interaction'?

I suspect the answers lie in the number of ones and zeroes we continue to ingest, what we're willing to trade.

But, wait, give me a moment to post the questions up on my Facebook profile, and I'll let you know what my friends think ...

Drew TaylorDrew Taylor is a reviewer and features writer with The Salvation Army's National Editorial Department. He previously worked in the marketing department of an international video game publisher and has been widely involved in the development of game culture in Australia.

Topic tags: Drew Taylor, FaceBook, SecondLife, World of Warcraft, Digital Distribution Summit, Xbox 360, iTunes, apple



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Existing comments

Maybe I am old fashioned - I am a just 60 post war generation baby boomer guy and I just can't get used to using Face Book! My young adult children (20's) do use it but still seem to have a very healthy social life in the real world. I have to wonder just how many people actually fit Drew's profile. I guess it's Generation Y and the Office workers with time on their hands at work who most use Face Book etc.
As for me I prefer having a beer with mates or being with friends at a quiet evening meal.
Gavin | 12 January 2010


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