I prefer the letterbox edition

by david

It used to bug me the way TV networks promoted everything as an “event” and a “hit” before it had even aired. It used to bug me that every month every car manufacturer promised “once in a lifetime savings” and “unprecedented deals.” I laughed at movie ads that portrayed uninspired knockoffs as works of genius. But now I hardly notice these exaggerations and lame distortions.

I hardly notice because now we have internet and technology companies. Last week, Apple gave us this:

And that was pretty funny. A day that we’ll never forget? It was last week and I can’t remember which day it was. A day that we’ll never forget? I’m sorry, I’m still waiting for the day that Apple acknowledges the OS error that’s crippling a small number of users’ wireless. As a guy with AirPort service that goes on walkabout unpredictably, I might remember for years to come the date they gave me a patch to restore the basic functions I counted on when I bought the computer. To be honest though, no, I probably wouldn’t remember. Because it’s a transaction with a corporation. I don’t save the date. I don’t make a scrapbook. I buy or I don’t.

But really, while Apple’s public masturbation last week got all the press, it has nothing on Facebook’s. Please watch this video explaining Facebook’s new messaging service. If you don’t have the appetite for smug facial expressions and gross simplification of your communication habits, or you’re just tired of listening to that music from all the Sprint commercials, skip to the last 30 seconds, which is all I really want to talk about.

OK. Let’s take it as a given that this Facebook messaging platform is everything they say it is, functionally. It’s the bees knees. We love it. We Cc Zuck on every shred of communication, conference him in on every call, just as our way of saying, “Thanks, pal, for making the chore of talking to both grandma and my weed dealer a lot simpler.” In reality you might not take this as a given–in fact, you might laugh your fool face off at the suggestion that Facebook is where you want to conduct most of your communication–but just go along with it for now.

Wouldn’t that be enough? Wouldn’t it be enough that they’d created a platform that clearly does something useful and potentially new and maybe even, with time and trust, something that might replace some of your email and texting and IM habits? Because it looks like they’ve done that. And if they have, that’s a pretty big deal.

So why do they have to bring in this BOX OF LETTERS nonsense? (I capitalize BOX OF LETTERS because what I’d like to do, make the words shoot little flames off your screen, would require CSS skills and several years at Hogwarts, neither of which I have.)

It starts like this:

Imagine you had the entire history of your conversations with your boyfriend or girlfriend. I mean, everything from, “Hey, you wanna get coffee later” all the way to “You’ve got to pick up the kids tonight at soccer practice.”

OK. I guess that sounds like what you’re offering, if all of our communications were mediated by technology. Sure. But even if it were just the ones that were, that would be nice. Looking back on some of those first messages would be fun. “Hey, look how obviously nervous I was!” But then he says:

My grandmother had that. It was a box of letters from my grandfather from when they were dating.

Really, Mr. Facebook Communications Visionary? Your grandmother had a box of letters that included a written invitation to coffee, and every kitchen-counter note reminding her of a chore? Your grandfather sounds like a bit of an uptight dick. Either that or your grandmother was a hoarder. Furthermore, if this metaphor is accurate, it also means your grandmother’s box was packed tight with 10-step negotiations over when and where to meet. It included instructions on how to find a band that was playing a song your grandfather thought she’d enjoy, and short reel-to-reel tapes of Japanese cats in costumes, presumably keepsakes he obtained while serving in the big one, as well as some domestic cats pleading for cheezburgers. The box must have been huge because it included approximately 150 photos of your grandfather doing shots of Don Julio tequila, several letters full of snarky comments about her friends, and a desperate whining about not wanting to go to one more fucking holiday party.  Because if your grandmother’s box doesn’t contain all that stuff, you’re talking about SOMETHING ELSE. My guess is that your grandma didn’t save every bit of ephemera and mundane negotiation, the conversational commerce of everyday life. But what do I know about your grandmother? Maybe she did. Maybe she’s got a storage space the size of a grain silo.

Oh, I’m sorry. You were still talking. What was that?

That kind of thing is increasingly rare, and I’m left to ask, you know, “Where is my box of letters?” It’s locked up in a phone. It’s locked up in email. It’s not in one place. Until now.

Wait, what? Let’s take this one thing at a time, but in reverse order. 1) “It’s locked up in a phone. It’s locked up in email. It’s not in one place. Until now.” Yes. You’ve gone from having your messages tied to the tools that created them to having them conveniently locked up in Facebook. And while there’s certainly plenty of value in consolidating, apparently, that’s not enough of a claim. We need reminding that nothing says “treasured box of letters” like a marginal ad that announces “Lexus® Presents the World’s Most Advanced Driving Simulator” or “Half-Off Bowling” or “Been In An Accident? Contact lawyers with expert knowledge to discuss your claims!”

2) “I’m left to ask, you know, ‘Where is my box of letters?'” That sounds like the voice of my generation, all right. What a bunch of whiny entitled pricks we are: “Oh, wah! Technology is so wonderful and so amazing that it allows me to act and communicate on a whim and do more in a month than my grandfather could in a decade, and I wouldn’t give a shred of that speed or power for anything, not even to save an orphan somewhere, but I feel like the real me is just a quaint, quiet gentleman from another time, one who enjoys the simple quiet pleasures and loves nothing so much as an evening flipping through my keepsake correspondence with my dearest love. Damn this amazing power that alienates me from a technology and metaphor that’s never been a part of my daily life. Oh, how modernity oppresses.”  You don’t want a box of letters. If you did, you’d write letters. And you don’t. So give it up. There’s tradeoffs in life, and the $100+ you pay each month for your smartphone and data plan proves it.

3) “That kind of thing is increasingly rare.” Well, yes, but that’s not the problem you’re solving. It’s increasingly rare because people don’t correspond the way they used to. Even now, saving emails, texts, and IMs, you don’t get that sort of collection. You get something else. You get a record of flirtation and cleverness, perhaps. You get dirty jokes and passive aggression and pet names and missed connections and excited “I love you”s and plenty of other stuff that’s great and that’s boring and that you wish you could forget and everything around and in between, but you don’t get A BOX OF LETTERS.

Facebook can collect every word you squeak and type, but it’s something different. Something that grandma never had. And that’s fine. Because her grandma probably didn’t get letters at all, as she was probably never more than 5 miles from her husband, and if she was, the Civil War made the mail system a bit unreliable, not to mention brought only terrible news. And your grandma’s grandma’s grandma might have been illiterate, and probably didn’t marry for love, and probably died fairly young. Things change. Usually for the better. And really, this is all as beside the point as the last 30 seconds of that video. Just like Facebook overreached in making their case, I’m overreaching in making mine. But they don’t have to: they spent a year developing something kind of cool. Too bad they don’t have the self confidence to present it without the schmaltz.

In short: get over yourself Facebook. You’re not solving all the world’s existential crises. You make a web site that people love. Isn’t that enough?