Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Facebook was right about the "like" button

While the attention is still focused on Facebook and privacy, there has been far less talk about the change from "become a fan" to "like" for company and group pages. My first response to this was to "dislike" the whole idea. I know if I'm truly a fan. Liking is far more subjective and changeable. What if I'm sort of lukewarm? Is there a "meh" button? No, there is not.

There was also the torturous way that Facebook was treating the English language. Getting an email that reads something like, "John Major suggests you 'like' British Petroleum" is a skin-crawling experience for anyone who was raised to speak and write properly. He does? I do? This is nothing short of grammatical butchery--and who knows what new horror the folks at Facebook will present to us next.

There was also a certain creepiness factor. While I've been on the side of moderation on the whole Facebook privacy question, I'll admit I had a bad feeling about where this was going. It was clearly an attempt to gather more data for marketers--the larger plan being to spread the "like" button far and wide across the open Internets. This may benefit Facebook and its advertisers, but would it really help me?

In short, I was all ready to hate the whole "like" button idea.

Fast forward a few weeks. I am finding that when people suggest I "like" a company, product or group, I'm doing it. Click, click. I may not be a full-on fan of the thing, but I definitely like it. It's a lighter weight, less cumbersome option. This is exactly the reasoning behind the change, according to Facebook itself. And lo and behold, they were right. And while I'm still a lot less likely to "like" something outside of Facebook, every once in awhile, I do hit that button, and I do it gladly.

What do you think? Are you finding this option to be preferable, or do you miss becoming a "fan?" Or, are you so fed up with Facebook at this point that you don't even care?

Meanwhile, here is Betty White's view of Facebook, in case you haven't seen it (via B.L.Ochman):

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why I'm not leaving Facebook

A lot of folks I know and respect are leaving Facebook right now. Their reasoning, as far as I can tell, is that Facebook has gone too far, and is violating their privacy in new and dangerous ways. And even among those who are staying put, there's a general feeling that Facebook is somehow controlling us and should be treated with suspicion.

At issue, chiefly, is the "Instant Personalization" update announced at the recent Facebook developer's conference, F8. This allows Facebook's partners to load your profile onto its sites automatically. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal, but apparently it is to a lot of people. Even Senator Chuck Schumer is getting into the act---he thinks that a good use of the public money is to complain about Facebook to the FTC.

I'm not completely unsympathetic. I do think that this really ought to have been an "opt in" rather than "opt out" feature-- especially considering how few Facebook users understand how to set privacy options. I probably would've opted into it if that had been the default. Instead, I opted out in protest.

Still and all, it's very similar to what a lot of us Facebook users have been doing all along with Facebook Connect. It's not clear exactly how (or even if) Facebook is actively sharing our data with its partners. If it were, I'm not sure I'd care much. Pandora already knows my musical preferences, because I deliberately told it what they were. That's the whole point of Pandora! I'm annoyed when it gets it wrong. And oh how I wish Yelp knew me better than it does. If it suggests one more time that I go to a crappy chain restaurant, I'm uninstalling the app. In short, if Facebook can help improve my experience, that's just dandy with me.

What we have on our hands here, then, is something psychological. We're hitting a dip in the hype cycle and getting panicky. Here is the tipoff--people are starting to talk about Mark Zuckerberg in emotional terms. The word "evil" is popping up. It reminds me of the way we used to talk about Bill Gates, before he got all warm and fuzzy. Over the past few months, the pressure has been building, especially in the media and among bloggers. Then, last week, Wired lost its mind, and went completely ballistic on Zuck's ass. Maybe this was a way to sell papers, but it sure seemed out of proportion to me.

My view, which parallels that of Robert Scoble and a handful of other brave souls who are trying to counteract the hype, is that I am not and never have been very concerned about privacy on Facebook. Why should I be? It's the Internet for goodness sakes. The public, open, free Internet that we all embraced with open arms--that we championed and cheered on for years and years.

And really, what am I sharing? A few pictures of my cats. A list of my previous jobs and education. Some nice family snaps. As a journalist, I've had a public online persona for 15 years. It's been a pain in the ass at times--like the time a pornbot got hold of my name (yes, first AND last), making every Google search for my name an exercise in porno linkbait. But overall, I've been very happy with these here Internets, and the ways they allow me to share who I am with the rest of the world. Like me or hate me, I "yam what I yam."

And, while I *wish* I could say that I'm special and unique in every way, I know that as far as anything Facebook could find out about me, I'm really not. I like certain types of music, enjoy some restaurants and not others ... big whoop. I don't share information that I wouldn't want the whole world to know. My address is kept private... although, remember the phone book? Remember how you could just look someone's name and address and phone number up? Well, it still exists. I do think that it's important to take sensible precautions. Don't announce that you're traveling, especially if you've left your house empty. Don't give too much information out about truly personal things in your life. And be careful about sharing when you're feeling vulnerable. It's fine to say you're having a bad day, but I do cringe when I see people talking about bad dates, or major relationship issues, or even serious problems they're having with housemates. This stuff is probably best left unsaid in a public forum.

And that is the point. Think of Facebook as a public place, not a private one. If you do, a lot of the fears about privacy disappear. Email should be private. Phone conversations should be private. Social networking, not so much.

Image: Pulled off Wired and messed with: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/05/facebook-rogue/

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Remembering the coast's Santa

I'm often the last to know when big news hits my local area, and so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it's been nearly a year since one of Half Moon Bay's most beloved residents, Rod Schoenlank, passed away. Rod, who died of congestive heart failure on June 26, 2009, just before his 88th birthday, was one of the first people to befriend me when I arrived on the coastside four years ago. I was confused, scared and lost. I had come here for a job that turned out to be nothing like I'd imagined. After eight excruciating months I quit. I had no plan in mind, and found myself spending my days in a local cafe, scribbling down everything I saw and heard.

Some of these notes, I began turning into short essays with a vague notion of collecting them into a book. Then life picked up again, and all of it was forgotten, except Rod himself. He continued to have his daily "coffee klatsch," and whenever I went to the local cafe I was sure to see him, sitting there surrounded by his amazing friends. He always invited me to join them, and the conversations were never dull. He was like a heavy star, holding people together through the sheer gravity of his personality.

As the pace of my life increased, I had less and less time. I rarely stopped by the cafe. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind told me he must have died--he was getting into his late eighties, after all--but I never bothered to check. Today, something told me to run a search online. Sure enough, there was an item in the Half Moon Bay Review, along with links to some remembrances.

The best is a slide show that an intern at the Half Moon Bay Review did of him a few years ago. He quotes "Hamlet" in the seamless, unconscious way of someone who knew long sections of it by heart. He is shown on his boat, the Lao Tzu, moored in Princeton Harbor for two decades. He doesn't seem old. He never did. Rather, he seemed ageless. We all knew that he'd have to walk off the stage at some point. Yet, it seems impossible that there is now a world that no longer contains him. I felt a wave of shame that I was so careless as to lose track of him, until there was no longer someone to track.

If you have the patience, below find one of the essays I wrote after an early meeting with Rod. It's not about him--he's just another local character woven into the narrative. I preserved his and everyone else's anonymity. I named him "Gary Eagle," based on a story he told me that I've since forgotten--something to do with meeting a member of the Eagle clan in his travels. The dialogue and situation were taken directly from real life, with hardly a detail changed, and I think the part that features him does him some justice. I hope so.


Princeton Harbor on Half Moon Bay is only a half hour south of San Francisco, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Here, fishermen sell live crab from their boats, sending customers off with long plastic bags stuffed with these heavy, reddish claw-snapping delicacies. They lug the bags back to their Audis and Mazdas, and as they drive home, the interiors of their vehicles fill with the briny scent of the bay.

Just beyond the line of fish and chip shops lies a maze of narrow streets named after the Ivy League and Seven Sisters universities and colleges of the northeast. My own alma mater, Vassar, is a small, ill-paved street that unexpectedly dead ends near a pile of ancient, rotted fish netting. Harvard Avenue, Yale Way and Amherst Streets all meander here and there, taking you past vacant lots, or lots piled high with rusted hulks of various sizes, shapes, and providences. Abandoned wooden boats lie on the grass, moored among weeds that grow over them like the rivulets that once surrounded them during their useful lives. Wildflowers grow everywhere, impervious to rusty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and discarded styrofoam clam chowder bowls, left by careless visitors anxious to return to the warmth of Hayward or Redwood City, beyond the reach of the cold, cloying fog.

Much of the area is made up of warehouses. Many are signless, and when we first arrived I wondered if they were empty, until one weekend several put out sandwich boards on the highway, enticing us with promises of inexpensive records and brick-a-brac. When this happens, we discovered, crowds descend, snapping up flat screen televisions, children’s clothing, gold-plated platters, scented candles, plastic flowers and “Dora the Explorer” lunchboxes.

All through the summer, the air here is as thick and white as milk.
It hangs in front of your eyes and clings to your clothing until everything you own is perpetually damp and cold. If you stand on the shore next to Princeton Harbor, the sea looks like a billowing sheet, white from top to bottom, completely merged with the sky. Flocks of brown pelicans move as one entity, silently skimming the water. They don't seem to mind the fog. I never hear them complaining of soggy feathers; never hear them pronounce, grouchily, to their pelican spouse, "This is our new home by the beach?"

The human residents don’t talk about the fog much either. They seem to have steeled themselves. About the only time they mention it is to laugh at tourists who come here in the summer dressed in shorts, slathering sunscreen on their shivering children.

Those who are determined to meet the locals will eventually find their way to a cafĂ© across the street from the harbor, Cafe Classique. It is where everyone in the area goes, from the fisherman standing in their rubber boots to Mexican farm workers, to Silicon Valley engineers who live on the coast for their love of surfing or the sea. Standing in line, you move forward in fits and starts, feeling your way along as the ordered chaos dances around you. Mothers turn around and find the fathers of their children’s friends, stepping out of the line to greet them. There is talk of summer camp and carpools. Those on their way to work seem to forget themselves, stopping to chat for half an hour by the cream dispensers before glancing at their watches and making their reluctant way out, paper cup full of cooled coffee in hand.

Even on the coldest days, the locals swarm out to the deck, nursing warm mugs of coffee, or eating breakfast made from local eggs. One group of folks has been meeting here every morning at ten a.m. sharp for the past eighteen years. This is the "coffee klatsch," organized by Gary Eagle.

One morning I witnessed a conversation that I took to be fairly typical. Mr. John, a huge man wearing a battered leather cap and overalls was sitting at a small table by himself.

“Cats,” he announced, to no one in particular. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I got a few cats,” volunteered Sally, who sat at the coffee klatch table. “Sometimes, they tear up my sofa. But that’s okay because I hate my sofa. Reminds me of my ex-husband.”

“Which ex-husband?” asked Chip, who sat next to her.

“The fourth one,” she answered.

“Oh him,” said Chip, nodding.

Sally shared her raisin cake with Chip and the others at the table, who pounced on it like mice.

“Let me tell you something. I got a habit of keeping cats,” Mr. John went on. “Me and three Mexican guys. We call it our cat farm. It’s over by …” he paused, looking left and right, then continued, as if assured there were no spies, “…the yacht club. But it’s a totally secret place.”

“How many you got, Mr. John?” asked Doc.

“We’re up to twelve of them. So, let me ask you. Do you think it’s normal for a man to have that many cats?”

Doc didn’t eat the cake.
He’s very careful about sugar. A retired oral surgeon, he is single and always on the lookout. The women he dates complain that he treats them like the mouths of his former patients. As soon as they meet, he begins to drill into their pasts. He is sure he can be the one to uproot the decay and make it disappear for good. This drives them off, he knows, but he can’t stop himself.

“I don’t know, Mr. John. What’s normal or not?” asked Chip.

Chip lives in a boat in the harbor, but you rarely find him there. He’s usually housesitting or paying a friend with a house on dry land an extended visit. He doesn’t like water. He’s still not sure how he ended up owning a boat.

“A man can pick up a lot of bad habits. He can drink alcohol. He can smoke cigarettes. Hell, he can smoke crack,” Mr. John continued. “You stack those things up against cats, and I think you have to agree things are pretty good for me.”

“I had a beautiful gray dog once,” said Gary Eagle. “Now that I live on a boat, a dog’s not such a good companion. Boating life’s hard for a dog.”

A youthful eighty-six, Gary has a long, flowing white beard that makes him look like a slimmed-down Santa. His eyes twinkle and shine no matter what he is doing or saying. His face looks like it was ironed over and over, until some of the creases stayed put. Gary told me he was once the vice president of a steel company in Muskegee, Wisconsin. He keeps his old business card in his wallet to remind himself of what might have become of his life. At the height of his career, he walked out of his office, never to return.

Now Gary’s home is the Lao Tzu. He bought it two decades ago, and has managed to keep it going, despite plumbing problems, and an aging hull. Buying that boat was the best decision of his life, he tells you. The Lao Tzu shelters him through the seasons. At Christmastime, friends bring children’s stuffed animal toys to him. He gathers them on the deck of the Lao Tzu. The children arrive and he tells them to come on board and find the toy that "chooses them." To the kids, there is no doubt who he is.

A couple sat down near the regular’s table, where the topic of dogs was now in full swing. The pair were clearly not locals. It’s possible they were not even from San Francisco. Their faces were pinched, their posture as stiff as wood. Gary’s gaze fell on them, seeking their faces for a smile. The woman turned away, her cheeks going scarlet.

“You must be a regular here,” the man said, letting out a nervous laugh.

Gary laughed so hard he had to wipe a tear away.

“Oh, yes, you could say that. You could definitely say that.”

The couple spotted another empty table as far from the others as possible. They dived for it, all the while explaining themselves, as if talking to a child or a lunatic.

“This one is larger, see?” said the man. “And more comfortable.”

Gary smiled again, his eyes twinkling even more intensely than before. Santa.

The fog began to burn off, revealing sky and trees that had been shrouded. Children played on the sidewalk. An old black dog with white feet and a white nose meandered down the street. It stopped before crossing, looking out for left turners and hot rodders. Finding a large tree, it stood next to it as if taking up a sentry post. The wind picked up. A heavy, green branch above the dog fluttered jaggedly, up and down, up and down. This is not a place for those who want the easy life, I decided. Nor, is it a place for those who want to blend in and be forgotten. Even this dog is a local. And somehow, I think he knows it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010