Blogging, Google+ and tangled networks

Dave Bonta’s post about Google+ had me thinking about my relationships with various social networks.

I remember being rather resentful of Facebook because I had carefully carved out a space on the web: this blog. I liked being able to change the way it looked, and to fiddle with the internal workings; and above all I liked being able to post to my own space, without someone else’s corporate logo at the top of it, and someone else’s advertising running down the side.

And having gone to that trouble, it annoyed me to have to set up a new, separate web presence in Facebook’s walled garden, where my stuff would be presented the way Facebook thought was best. At least it wasn’t as bad as MySpace, but it still had a shitty user interface, and a cavalier approach to privacy, and I had to jump through hoops to get the material I was posting to my blog mirrored inside Facebook, and it never quite worked the way I felt it should.

But, that was where my friends were. So that was where I needed to be. And since RSS feeds never quite broke through as a mainstream technology, if I did want any of them to read my blog, there had to be some way to let them know when I posted something. And over time I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t bother me much anymore… until I need to change a setting somewhere, when it drives me nuts.

So that’s Facebook: whatever its other faults, it’s the social network which actually has my friends on it. Perhaps they could use that as a slogan.

Then there’s Twitter. In some ways, Twitter is Facebook with all the crap taken out; no stupid games, no ads, just a string of status updates. Which I like. And I like the fact that the relationships are asymmetrical; you can read their updates without being their ‘friends’. It makes it sort of semi-social in quite a nice way.

But not many people I know are really active on Twitter. The people I follow are mainly a mixture of celebrities, journalists, science writers, nature bloggers and so on. So for me, it’s not actually a social network at all; it’s just an RSS reader with ADHD.

I don’t have a Google+ account yet, but from what I’ve seen it seems like a nice balance between Facebook and Twitter: it has less accumulated cruft than Facebook (so far at least), better privacy controls, and asymmetrical relationships. It’s somewhere between a streamlined Facebook and a beefed-up Twitter. Which sounds like it might be a perfect replacement for both. Except unless the whole world agrees at once to ditch Facebook and Twitter, it won’t actually replace either of them: it will just be another endless stream of stuff to distract us.

Which brings me on to Tumblr. I didn’t actually join Tumblr for its social networking; I was posting lots of links on this blog and wanted to spin those off into a separate site and leave this blog for longer pieces. And rather than create yet another WordPress installation, joining Tumblr seemed an easy way of doing it. But in fact I got sucked into the ‘social’ aspects of looking through other people’s posts, and liking and reblogging them. Not that it feels remotely like a genuinely sociable activity — there’s not much personal connection there — but scanning through other people’s posts is fun, and when they like or reblog my own posts there’s a little hit of positive reinforcement, so it’s quite addictive and a complete timesuck.

And I’ve been enjoying it, but I can’t help feeling that the result has been to weaken this blog and to fragment my online presence even further. I’ve even thought of posting a weekly Tumblr roundup here, of some of the more interesting stuff… which might work quite well but just brings me back to doing a manual version of the automated links which Tumblr was supposed to replace.

In some ways I do want to try Google+; partially because it’s a new toy but also because they seem to have learnt from the mistakes and successes of previous networks. It looks genuinely well-thought-out. But another part of me thinks it’s just madness. I’ve already got an RSS reader, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr on the go, not to mention Goodreads and Flickr: surely I have enough information streams to keep me busy.

And this continuing fragmentation brings me back to my initial objection to social networks: I already have a bit of the internet, thank you, one which I set up years ago and I administer. And I want to be able to put my own website at the centre of my online identity: not my Google profile, not my Facebook page, not my Twitter stream. I know it’s a terribly retro idea, but I like the idea of my own website being my ‘homepage’.

However. That personal preference of mine is hardly the point. I’m sure the last sad users of MySpace had a strong personal preference as well, but in the end they just turned out to be a load of Cnuts. And the number of visitors to this site has been slowly but steadily declining. That is no doubt mainly my own fault for not being interesting enough, but whatever the reason: it’s depressing.

So where does all that leave me? I don’t know, really. Dissatisfied with the status quo but without any good ideas for how to change it.

» The spiderface image is a combination of Hendrik Goltzius’s woodcut portrait of Gillis van Breen from 1588, and The spider, a lithograph by Lily Blatherwick from 1927. Both via the British Museum.

10 Comments

  1. 18 July 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    I know a few bloggers that like Facebook, but I feel the same way about it that you do. The introduction of Google+, for some reason, has a number of bloggers expressing frustration over the perceived loss of their readers’ attention to social networks. Following up on her comment to Dave’s post, rr of Twisted Rib suggests that her feed reader is her real wall, and I think that’s true for me, too.

    What if every writer who felt jilted for Facebook jilted Facebook? I can dream!

  2. 18 July 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    “So for me, it’s not actually a social network at all; it’s just an RSS reader with ADHD.” Bingo.

    Tumblr simplifies things by eliminating comments altogether, forcing people to repost and add comments on their own sites. Trouble is, in most Tumblr communities I’ve looked at, few people seem to have anything to say.

    Your Tumblr stream is one of the very few in my Google Reader. I’m not saying I always keep current with it, but you are an outstanding online curator of cool nature- and culture-related stuff. I don’t know what your best solution is now, but if you do get to feeling you’d like to import your Tumblr stuff here, there’s a new WordPress plugin that looks promising.

  3. Harry
    18 July 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Peter: I don’t entirely blame social networks for my loss of traffic. I’m sure it’s just as much to do with the fact it doesn’t have a well-defined subject and I don’t make enough effort to attract new readers. But it is clearly true that people are using the internet differently now, and somehow I don’t think social networking is just a passing phase.

    Dave: I don’t think I can straightforwardly import all the stuff I post to Tumblr without completely swamping this blog. But I think I will try to come up with some way of reintegrating some of that stuff. Hmm.

  4. 18 July 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    You could always create a custom taxonomy or a custom post type. Doing the latter will keep them out of your feed entirely, which may or may not be what you want. You can import to a single category, then use Stephanie Leary’s Convert Post Types plugin.

  5. Harry
    18 July 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Ah, I see what you mean. Interesting. I do think it’s about time I revamped the design of this blog. Maybe I should go whole hog from a minimalist design to a maximalist one, with a whole column of Tumblr thumbnails and a Twitter stream on the front page… or something.

  6. Harry
    18 July 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh, incidentally, I installed the comment subscription plugin after reading your post. Seemed like a good idea.

  7. 18 July 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Via Negativa is very much a compromise between my aesthetic preference for more minimal themes and my desire to include essential info, navigational aids, entry-points to the archives, and of course the smorgasblog (which doesn’t appear on individual post pages). It’s always tempting to just put one more thing in the sidebar…

  8. 18 July 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Yep, and I’ve been following this comment thread quite handily as a result. Thanks.

  9. 28 July 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    I completely empathize with your frustration and the dilemma of negotiating these social networking galaxies. What’s worse, when you think you have finally found the answer, the ground moves from under your feet. I like the control of Word Press, but Tumblr’s social aspects are hard to forego. But even then it’s unclear what kind of attention is the most valuable and where to find it.

  10. Harry
    29 July 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Yup. I don’t know what the answer is, if there is one. Keep on bumbling along, I guess.

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