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Facebook, Twitter and the Social Web: Sharing But Not Caring

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Last night was Lost's. Not only for devotees — who dominated Twitter's trending topics — but among apostates and abstainers, too, Sunday evening conversation was rife with tweets like, "really jealous of everyone doing LOST final parties... i've never even seen one episode. i wanna be a part of it."

But interestingly, a third camp emerged — shall we call them the Others? — who bemoaned the giant ash cloud lingering over their feeds.

"Twitter is useless tonight," tweeted Nick Bilton, the technology writer for the New York Times. "I've never watched Lost & don't plan to start now."

Then, Bilton linked to an article of his, "Twitter Needs More Filters." Irked by his friends and followers' migration to SXSW, but speaking also of "the Superbowl, Oscars, Michael Jackson's death and the Tiger Woods scandal," Bilton complained, "Some people just aren't interested, yet if you want to use Twitter, you can't look away — you are forced to rubberneck."

Rubberneckers, of course, are those who gawk at often-horrifying roadside scenes, and thus slow up traffic for the rest of us. Rubberneckers also are the type of people Virginia Heffernan wrote of last week, in her fascinating piece on the web's incipient suburbanization. Building on earlier research that the social web is actually reifying race and class divisions, Heffernan wrote that the iPad's advent signals "a way out, an orderly suburb that lets you sample the Web's opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff." Facebook's walled garden, Apple's app store, and any number of behind-paywall sites represent, to Heffernan, the "online equivalent of white flight."

And rubberneckers are also the kind of people Mark Zuckerberg thought made up his clientele, but actually do not. Writing in today's Washington Post, Zuckerberg explained, "Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark." On Facebook, less can be more; sometimes we'd rather conform than form our own settings. Like Heffernan's suburban migrators, Zuckerberg's user base would just as soon avoid the highway clutter, and speed along to suburbia untrammeled.

All of which makes Bilton's plea for filtering on Twitter more germane. Take a look at the methods available for filtering. There's Filttr, which allows you to "blacklist" and "whitelist" certain keywords; there's MicroPlaza, which isolates popular links among the people you're following; and TweetDeck, which can filter out people, words or sources "until physically removed." Heffernan's warning of "virtual redlining" starts to ring clear.

Remember that earlier this year, it was Bilton who championed Twitter over George Packer's objections. Twitter represented a "metamorphosis" for Bilton, after which "everyone will benefit from the information moving swiftly around the globe." How to reconcile that sweeping, ubiquitous and unfettered vision with Bilton's tweet last night, that the "beauty of Twitter" — and the social web in general — "is the ability to get granular content & personalized info. culled by type of people/genres I follow."

When Bilton and Zuckerberg talk about "granular," they are approaching the issue from opposite ends. But the Facebook creator who wanted his users to share more and the Twitter user who wants to be shared with less are two sides of the same coin. Facebook's simpler privacy controls and Twitter's impending filters reach for the same goal: a private garden, secluded from city noise, nosy neighbors and the stories and collisions we would rather not see. In other words, the suburbs.

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