Facebook: How the Timesuck Destroying the English Language Will Save Us All

Apr 15, 2010

Trustee Spotlight
Facebook: How the Timesuck Destroying the English Language Will Save Us All
By Sydney Skybetter
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 
  -- Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (1962)
My younger sister, Rachel, is well on her way to having 2,000 “friends” on Facebook.com. This obscenely high number consists of “friends” from elementary school, current roommates, our mother (begrudgingly), college professors, among many, many others she has collected over the years. Her Facebook profile remains constant as her mail and email addresses change over the years, and it contains more photos of her than are held in family scrapbooks. She does not plan on leaving Facebook any time soon. 
This kind of hardcore facebooking has curious social effects. On her birthday, hundreds of people from around the world message her to wish her well. She (and occasionally her friends) R.S.V.P.s for my company’s dance performances as a gesture of solidarity, knowing she will be several thousand miles away and unable to make it. A Halloween photo of her dressed like a Ninja Turtle received more comments than I had guests at my wedding. Though she often communicates with her “friends” using an indecipherable hash of conjugations of the word “fierce” and unbelievable acronymic concoctions, she has an agenda. When Rachel posts to her blog (“Slouching towards Bloomington”), all her “friends” are notified, and web traffic pours in.
Rachel represents a generation that has been on computers since birth, Googled since they could write, and used online social networks since adolescence. For this generation the notion of “losing track of someone” is hopelessly antiquated. My sister could literally travel to any state in the country and spontaneously have lunch with a group of “friends” she has not physically seen in decades, if ever. Facebook is the most sophisticated rolodex in history -- a self-aware and incredibly complex online database that represents the face of technology to come. 
In just a few years, Facebook (as well as hundreds of related online technologies) has radically reconfigured the notion of a “dance audience.” Dance media has utterly proliferated online, and many companies’ online audiences easily exceed their theater-going audience, typically by many times. Yet the ecosystem of online performance is nascent, a volatile environment susceptible to the whimsy of user behavior. Even without addressing the ongoing question of intellectual property rights, there is a legitimate reticence to invest administrator hours in online content, for fear a newfangled technology will render previous efforts moot. Online audience development requires steady participation and ongoing commitment to content creation, but without an immediate means of generating revenue, it is difficult to justify the expense. On the other hand, audiences will surely expect to watch dance online in the next few years. How then to proceed? 
Fundamentally, online social networks (like Facebook) and content repositories (like YouTube) are enormous databases that re-syndicate user-contributed data to millions of users. When a dance company posts a photo of a recent performance on Facebook, it is uploaded to a centralized online database, and re-syndicated across that company’s “friends’” Facebook pages. So while Facebook is an addictive and highly social database, at its core it is actually not so different from the Excel, Filemaker, or Access systems dance company administrators traditionally use to conduct business. 
If Facebook (or MySpace, Twitter, or any other online content aggregator) is considered a database with an internet-based means of conveying and relaying information, some unexpected things become possible. If equipped, a website with a content-management system (read: online database) can automate your own website to submit specific content to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, simultaneously. (Or “automagically,” as it is called in the web development community.) Instead of uploading then re-uploading and re-uploading again the same content to multiple sites, you can log in to your own company site, upload your content, and let your website re-syndicate that data to whatever sites you would like. 
This bit of web jujitsu brings the time needed to get content online to nearly nothing. Yet at a time of so many dance organizations facing imminent collapse, this conversation between your website’s database and Facebook has important infrastructural consequences for the performing arts. Consider email. For better or worse the lingua franca of our time, email fundamentally consists of data delivered from one email database server to another. Or event listings: now almost entirely compiled online using database-driven websites. Or e-marketing: typically HTML-encoded email that originates from one online database, retrieves image information from another online database, and is received in yet another online email database server.

With all of these various databases now online, a well-programmed website and content-management system can function as the central hub of an organization, disbursing data from your site to anywhere. Thus, many companies have found they no longer need to purchase off-line databasing systems like Filemaker and Access because their in-house online database is accessible from anywhere in the world, and has the same relational feature set. Others can cancel their e-marketing contracts because they can design better email than before, and manage subscribers more easily because their e-marketing database is in-house. The IT maintenance costs of such systems are negligible, and their potential applications are growing rapidly.
Dance organizations don’t have to participate with online communities like Facebook, but the field cannot ignore how such underlying technologic trends can affect and enhance our work. Facebook is the friendly harbinger of technology to come, and our not working to understand that comes with the risk of the obsolescence of our art.
Sydney Skybetter is a choreographer, curator, and consultant for performing arts organizations. He is a Partner with Design Brooklyn, which provides web and online infrastructure solutions for the arts, and has consulted with the National Ballet of Canada, the Jerome Robbins Trust and Foundation, and the Fourth Arts Block Cultural District, among many other organizations. He is a producer with the Dance[NOW] NYC Festival, a teacher for the NYU Tisch Dance Department, and serves on the board of directors of the Gotham Arts Exchange/Zia Artists, the New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award Committee, the board of trustees of Dance/USA, and the Tisch East Alumni Council. He received his Masters in Dance Performance and Choreography from New York University, where he was a graduate assistant in dance history. www.skybetter.org

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