If Facebook died

Second Life logoWhat 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

Well, Drew I have just posted it on my Facebook Profile and added it as a tweet. Will update on responses. I don't play games online and my social network sites are known for their socio-political content.

I recently did one of those "check your friends" applications in Facebook and discovered that of my 450+ friends, the vast majority are single males with left political leanings.

Perhaps I should declare my hand as a committed 7 on the Enneagram so a natural for social networking sites and the ability to bring people together whether it be in the virtual or earthed world!!!

If anything you have provoked me to a more careful reading of those disclaimers that I have scanned at the speed of light.

Thanks for beginning what I expect will be an animated online and earthed world conversation

Tony Robertson | 06 October 2009  

As a partially reformed Luddite, I get the heebie jeebies when, as Drew Taylor points out, 'People don't interact with us, they interact with our digital selves' - I don't know what that means for us as a species, in terms of meaningful engagement with others (again, I admit to being a partial technophobe). I do know that Drew is correct in identifying the transience of 'ownership'. I believe that his approach is more enlightened and ultimately healthier than that of those of us who cower in a corner of the social networking universe, timidly venturing out into vistas such as Facebook once they are passe. I hope we don't lose sight of the need for interaction rather than transaction: real community, genuine support, is much more than sending an email to a mate we haven't seen in years - an action many of us choose to undertake from insecurity, timidity and self-interest as much as temporal poverty. We need to devote time and effort to our friends, virtual or otherwise.

Barry Gittins | 06 October 2009  

Drew, I thought that the next step was obvious.

You don't need any real, flesh and blood friends any more. Surely some smart company programmer somewhere has already produced a "create-a-friend/follower" program that will give you an unlimited number and variety of virtual contacts, produced to your exact specifications and behaving just as you please. Then the hours that you spend (or is it waste?) interacting with them could be all the more enjoyable (or is it mind and personality destroying?) than they are now.

And don't worry that they are not real, living persons. You have already told us that you lost any meaningful contact with any of them long ago.

John R. Sabine | 06 October 2009  

'I wanna little of that human touch ... just a little of that human touch' - Bruce Springsteen. Data ain't the eyes of your loved one, nor can 0 and 1 give you a hug like a good friend can.

Andrew | 06 October 2009  

I am approaching 3 score years and 10 + and I just love Facebook with one of its games FarmVille. Emails keep me connected with distant friends and we share our lives, mostly daily, argue politics religion, sex and books ... no other communication is so effective and fun.

Loads of social contacts outside the computer world but I just love my computer as part of an interesting and growing network of relationships.

Judy | 06 October 2009  

My 60 year old Mother sent me an email recently with an attachment that pictured a man hugging a computer and a subtitle beneath the image that read "I love my computer because all my friends live in it".

I am sure this is an old image and statement, but it is nonetheless relevant for our online age. To a degree, this is somewhat pertinent for me given my very busy teaching life; if I were to be totally honest.

What is interesting here for me is that this present digital age has offered the 'written' word a new lease of life. When composed and constructed well, my communication with others (and also about myself, as in a public diary) demands a discipline that the spoken word could possibly miss or dismiss.

Despite my Facebook page, I do not advocate unfettered and empty digital utility. What I do applaud and support are any media forms that will build authentic, literate and just relationships/communities.

Ryan McBride | 06 October 2009  

Thank you for the insightful article. I strongly agree with the points on ownership of personal information - particularly in these days of identity theft.

As far as the dangers of networking sites goes, sometimes these sites allow people to maintain contact with people who might otherwise be out of reach. (Speaking personally, I find Facebook by far the easiest way to keep up with my NZ and South African friends and family now that I live in Oz.) Peace

Justin Glyn | 07 October 2009  

Absoutely Drew!! What can take the place of..the empathy behind the words....an eye to eye conversation...the inflection of the voice, changing the meaning of a sentence...the response to a sigh... body language... sharing emotions...the sense of belonging..the response to personal feelings... humman interaction...of our humanity.

Berniie Introna | 07 October 2009  

I've always believed that there are some companies out there that wanted to cash in and trying to get us hooked so that we would become dependent. However, I've never bought anything so that I would have an avatar or something. I remember Facebook would want me to buy some "Farm Town Cash" so that I could plant an Aussie flag on my farm. When they gave me "$32" for free I immediately bought that Aussie flag that looks very cool on my farm. But never would I intend to spend some hard cash so that I would look better on an avatar or make my virtual farm look better.

However, these social networks have been very beneficial to me. For me, it doesn't end the "face to face" real flesh and blood contact rather it makes organising reunions with long lost friends easier. Though I do admit that if Facebook would die tomorrow, there is no way that I could recover some of my friends contact details. So maybe I should jot down their contact details on pen and paper.

Thanks for this very thought provoking article. Cheers!

Elmer | 08 October 2009  

Hey all: thanks for your comments.

There's no doubt in my mind about whether or not we can have meaningful connections digitally. It's the extension of those, and the new parameters/rules of engagement that fascinates me. And within that is a new concept of 'Church'. Potentially, here is an opportunity to reboot the definition.

For the FaceBook/gamer fans among you, here's a link to videos of the apps set to appear on Xbox Live: http://www.joystiq.com/2009/10/19/video-preview-xbox-live-fall-2009-dashboard-update-facebook-t/

Drew Taylor | 21 October 2009  


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