Jason Pontin's Facebook fallacy

It was all in good fun, I thought, to tease my former boss Jason Pontin, now editor of MIT's Technology Review, about using Facebook, of all things, to hunt for interesting startup ideas. But the well-meant mockery soon uncovered a deeper issue: My friend misunderstands how one is meant to use Facebook. Pontin, ever the technoliteralist, takes Facebook at its word, thinking of it as a tool to replicate real-world relationships. He misses the real use that self-promoters like Jason Calacanis and Robert Scoble have discovered: Spamming the less-important people who have volunteered to be your "friends" — people who are really just fans, to whom you have no meaningful relationship.


Pontin writes, in a posting on Facebook:

What have I done?

Last week, when I asked my Facebook friends which startups I should write about, marketing and public relations professionals I donot know began befriending me and inundating me with pitches. I value Facebook as a private network, one where I can talk to my real friends, colleagues, and peers. Therefore, if you work in PR or marketing, and I don't have a prior relationship with you, I shan't be accepting your friendings and I shan't be reading your messages. I don't mean to be rude—but there it is.

Ah, but Jason, refusing Facebook friend invitations is rude, according to Scoble, a Facebook connoisseur. It's called "faceslamming," Scoble claims, and it's simply not done. Why, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates "faceslammed" Scoble, and Scoble's still steaming about it!

The trick to using Facebook as a tool for self-promotion is to treat it as strictly one-way. Accept all friend invitations, and then relentlessly spam your fans with examples of your latest work, to drum up traffic. Ignore any messages you receive; you can always plead "Facebook bankruptcy," as Calacanis did.

Even Pontin is beginning to understand that Facebook is not, in the end, about real relationships. Immediately after posting his diatribe against opportunistic faux frienders on Facebook, he turned around and added a Facebook spokesperson as a "friend." Why? Not because Pontin and the PR rep are actual friends in real life. His rationale? She "might conceivably be useful to me and [Technology Review]," he explains. The other PR reps who tried to friend Pontin? Not useful, apparently.

Useful versus not useful, of course, has the benefit of being a clearer distinction than the squishy category of "friend." Facebook, through the tireless efforts of Scoble and Calacanis, is transforming from a social network to a utilitarian broadcast network. Its users, increasingly, are divided into those looking for an audience, and those willing to provide same — as well as the usual Silicon Valley scrum of favor-trading and wheeling and dealing. Just ask yourself: What have your "friends" done for you lately?