Thursday, April 24, 2008

Facebook Fail

This week Facebook introduced a major new feature called Facebook Chat. As if Facebook members didn’t already have enough ways to communicate with each other (messages, wall postings, etc.) they now have yet another way to waste time. And this one, I predict, is going to be a biggie.

As far as I can tell, there is no easy way to hide from potential chatters, or to opt out of the feature entirely. *CORRECTION: Users may "Go Offline," which prevents them from appearing on someone else's list of online friends.* If you’re on Facebook, you’re visible to your friends and available to chat. This poses a problem to those of us who may keep a Facebook tab open at all times, not counting on it becoming a distraction when four friends initiate a chat. Facebook long ago showed online/offline status as part of someone’s profile, but I doubt many seized the opportunity of seeing a friend online to start messaging with them. Now users can interact with each other in the moment, while on the website, much like Google Talk on Gmail.

At first glance Facebook Chat seems like a technological regression, given its similarity to AOL Instant Messenger, the online conversation mode of choice for millions of middle schoolers in the late 90s. While it does superficially resemble AIM in functionality, Facebook Chat does distinguish itself in several important ways. First, a buddy list is not necessary, since the application takes uses the built-in friends list. This eliminates the need to save email addresses, etc. Second, Facebook Chat takes advantage of developments in web design software (probably Ajax), making it possible to conduct a chat and navigate on the main Facebook page simultaneously. This eliminates the need to toggle back and forth between windows, a bit of a nuisance. Chat windows can also be neatly minimized into the bottom of the main page, and red balloons pop up to notify you of new messages.

I, for one, am conflicted about this most recent Facebook innovation. It’s helpful to be able to contact a friend instantly if they’re online, but sometimes I just want to be online in peace, and not be bothered with banal back-and-forth texts. But I am a focus group of one, and I won’t underestimate my peers’ desire to be in constant contact with each other. Facebook has probably hit a home run with Chat—but I want to be in the dugout.

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