A couple of months ago I ran across an article (among many) that talked about the explosive growth of gaming on Facebook. After reading the piece I posted an idle question on Twitter, wondering if Facebook would ever been known as a game site first and a social-networking site second.
Obviously Facebook’s appeal transcends gaming. But another article over the weekend also makes it clear that the trend toward Facebook as a game-centric web space continues:
Market research group Lightspeed Research says 53 percent of Facebook’s members aged 18 and over have played a social game, and that 19 percent of those users consider themselves addicted to the games.
It’s also clear that Facebook did not see this coming. Most of Facebook’s games were third-party products, which, in many cases, were being used to rip-off Facebook’s own customers. (Facebook only stepped in to police the abuses when it noticed the amount of revenue being generated, and wanted a cut for itself.)
Beyond the historical perspective, what’s interesting to me about the continued explosive growth of gaming on Facebook is that it may signal weakness in the site’s social-networking premise. (Obviously the number of gamers and frequency of play only benefits Facebook. I’m not arguing that this is a problem relative to Facebook’s ongoing attempts to generate revenue from page clicks or by harvesting user data, etc.)
The premise of Facebook is that it allows you to build and manage your social relationships. But there are two potential problems with this premise. First, although some people treat Facebook as a competition, always looking to generate more ‘friends’, most people have a limited network they want to build and maintain. Once that’s accomplished, there’s not much more networking to do, which for many people is the fun part. Second, even a minimal network can require a great deal of maintenance, including photo and conversation management. While such things might be fun at first, keeping everything up to date on Facebook requires the same numbing process that goes into updating a physical photo album or contact list.
In this context, the explosion of interest in gaming on Facebook may be an indicator that social networking is losing steam on that site. Perhaps users are tired of self-directed building and management, and want a more catered experience. Maybe they’re bored with all of their ‘friends’. Maybe they simply have nothing else to do on the site than feed and maintain their presence, which is the internet equivalent of watering and weeding a garden.
Contrast all this with Twitter. While various third-party clients allow users to engage in more detailed management of the Twitter feed and networking experience, most users still use the basic web interface. And while the new iteration of Twitter that debuted yesterday certainly moves in Facebook’s direction, I don’t think it obligates users to do more if they don’t want to. And I see that as a critical distinction.
I started using Twitter a year ago, when I launched this site. I was quite dubious about its utility, in large part because Twitter doesn’t make sense until you learn how to use it for your own ends — which you can’t define in advance. I knew what Facebook was at that time, I knew what MySpace was, I knew how blogging platforms functioned, but Twitter was an enigma.
After a year in which I tried and rejected Facebook, I’m still using Twitter. Apart from my ethical concerns about Facebook’s privacy abuses, Facebook’s site required management separate from Ditchwalk, while Twitter requires almost no maintenance. Relative to the internet Facebook came to feel like a brick-and-mortar store, while Twitter remained an almost pure expression of online conversation. And I think that’s a key difference.
Facebook is meant to be a permanent place, but that carries a fairly heavy maintenance obligation for users — above and beyond dealing with the inanity of Facebook’s intentionally obfuscated interface. Twitter, on the other hand, is ephemeral and impermanent, yet persists as an application precisely because of its simple interface and limited maintenance obligation.
Given the pressure on Twitter to monetize traffic, and the difficulty of doing so with such an ephemeral design, I’m not holding my breath that the Twitter we know now will last. I do think, however, that for people interested in establishing a platform, Twitter provides considerably more return on considerably less investment, without necessitating the adoption of maintenance obligations like those on Facebook.
Which brings me back to Facebook and gaming. Every independent writer should have their own hosted site, both for reasons of ownership and permanence. Using Facebook as a platform leaves writers open not only to the whims of Facebook’s notoriously capricious management team, but also pits writers against other distractions on the Facebook site…like all those games that Facebook itself is now pushing.
On Twitter there’s none of that.
— Mark Barrett