Monday, March 01, 2010

Twitter ye not

I have a violent antipathy to the recent craze for online 'social networking'. It seems to me more like anti-social networking, publishing information about yourself to the world at large rather than engaging in purposeful one-to-one interactions. I particularly deplore the way that some people now use general announcements on Facebook to the entire exclusion of individual e-mailing (or text messaging). It's just lazy. And unfriendly.

I have - if such a thing is possible - even greater scorn for sites like Twitter, which threaten to swamp the Internet with a tsunami of ephemeral inanities. God knows, blogging is quite bad enough (I don't really approve, despite being a practitioner myself); but at least blogging is, or can be, a thoughtful process, a significant act of creation, a serious literary endeavour. Twitter, at best, is blogging lite. There may be some users who are putting out worthwhile content within the very limiting constraints of the 'short message' format; but most of it is no more than brainfarts. And how the heck are you supposed to search out what might be of interest to you amid such an incontinent morass of drivel? And even if the search tools were that incisive, I simply don't have the time to waste on another new waffling medium - the Internet eats up quite enough of my day as it is.

Over the last few months I have had a new bugbear - a kind of Twitter spin-off which, while having the appearance of having a more directed (and possibly useful) purpose, is to my mind even more extravagantly pointless than Twitter itself. Yes, I'm talking about FourSquare, which is, I gather, intended to be a means of sharing information about bars and restaurants. It attempts to motivate people to participate by including a 'game' element, whereby you can earn points and win 'badges' for visiting certain types of venue, finding new venues, etc. It's also supposed to be a "convenient" way to let your friends know where you are out on the town at any given moment. Oh my gawd!

The convenient way to let your friends know where you are is to send them a text message. If I haven't invited friends to join me at a particular location, that probably means that I'd rather be on my own, or just with whoever I'm currently with; and the same, I'm sure, would usually be true of them. If we want to hang out together, we arrange something. If we want to hang out separately, that's what we do. I really don't want to "find the party" by scouring this website to identify which bar may have the most people that I know in it at the moment; and I can't imagine why anyone would. (Moreover, I'm not aware that there's any straightforward way of blocking or limiting the other users who have access to your information; so, you are potentially advising a bunch of people you don't even know or perhaps don't particularly like of your whereabouts. Hence the joking nickname for this service,

The 'game' itself is terminally naff. I mean, really, who gives a flying fuck about collecting 'badges' on a website?! The most prized designation is supposed to be 'Mayor' - the reward for being the most regular customer at a given venue. Trouble is, the rules are so complicated or uncertain that none of the users I've met actually understands fully how this works - e.g., whether you can 'sign in' to a venue more than once in an evening (or a day, or a 24-hour period), or how often the count is re-set (most descriptions of the site I'd read said that the count was re-set each week at midnight Sunday [which is, I think, far too frequent; a monthly competition would surely make more sense]; but that seems not to be happening in Beijing - some people seem to be still ensconced as 'mayors' of places they haven't visited for weeks [Weeble, I'm looking at you here!], and indefatigable bar blogger Jim Boyce seems to be unchallengeable as the Mayor of Just About Everywhere around Sanlitun). What's more, there doesn't seem to be any publication of the rankings, or the number of visits posted by the current mayor of somewhere; so, if you're gunning for the title, you have no idea how close or far away from your target you are. Also, of course, the system is at risk of rampant cheating, since there's no verification of your actual location, and you can 'sign in' to anywhere you choose from the comfort of your own home.

A number of bar owners are embracing this fad as a possible marketing tool: I think Chad is offering permanent 'happy hour' prices to the Mayor of Fubar, and Olly at Ginkgo is offering a pizza and a drink to the first person to displace him as 'mayor' of his own bar (but, since the counter doesn't seem to be re-setting and Olly already has untold dozens of log-ins to his name, it could take quite some while to overhaul him). Good luck to them. But I think a fad is all it is. I am surprised to discover that I have as many as two enthusiastic users (and a few other occasionals) within my sphere of acquaintance; but you need.... a) to have an Internet-capable phone (which is probably only about 10% of people I know, at present), and b) you need to be arsed to sign up on the website (maybe 10% of that 10%), and c) you need to maintain your enthusiasm for the idea sufficiently to remember to 'sign in' everywhere you go (a rapidly dwindling proportion of that 1%, I would guess).

And, bar owners, please, you do realise this is just a gimmick, right? This site doesn't really tell you anything useful about your customers at all (like, who they come with, why they come, what they drink, how much they spend); it is not a substitute for being a hands-on manager and getting to know your regulars individually; the 'mayor' of your bar is not necessarily your best customer (just someone who visits a lot, and is enough of a saddo to play this silly game).

Now, as a forum for exchanging news and reviews about the drinking and dining scene, this might possibly have some utility. But.... well, in a city like Beijing, where there are never likely to be more than a few hundred users, it is far too open to manipulation: owners will exploit it to plug their venues, perhaps using aliases. Distinguishing the self-interested puffs from genuine customer comments will be too much like hard work. (Also, of course, most people just have no taste - so their comments won't be of any value, even if proffered disinterestedly.)

No, FourSquare, I spurn thee - a complete waste of time.

PS I believe at least one of my friends - the tech-savvy, tech-friendly New Media - 'signed in' Chez Froog at my housewarming party the other week.

PPS If I were going to have 'signed in' anywhere over the past fortnight, it would most likely have been "under the duvet" or "on the sofa". God, I hate Chinese New Year!

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