In late 2013, we watched our first full-length silent film, “The Thief of Baghdad” from 1924, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Fast-moving with an endlessly engaging score (a loop of “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov), it’s a good “break-in” film for anyone unfamiliar with the silent era. Fairbanks excelled at swashbuckling roles, and “The Thief of Baghdad” is one of the swashbucklingest movies ever made. He dances around with his scimitar and dives into the sea to fight off monsters, too.
Since that time, we have explored a few other silent era films, including the corpus of Kentucky director and Hollywood godfather D.W. Griffith. I recently finished his “Intolerance,” from 1916, the follow-up to 1915’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation.” The latter rewrote the rules for feature-length films by being essentially the first feature-length film, with a continuous narrative structure documenting the before, after and during of the American Civil War. “Intolerance,” though less famous, may be Griffith’s best work.
I have always liked the idea of split stories and parallel action; “Intolerance” provides nothing but for epic 3+ hour duration. There are four stories, each documenting a moment in history when intolerance of other belief systems or moral codes was the preamble to violence: there’s an ancient Babylonian story about the city attack by Cyrus the Great, a Judean story about Jesus, a French story about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and an American modern story about a mill strike and a group of, well, intolerable moralists.
The variety of “Intolerance” makes its epic running time go by swiftly. Griffith employs many different color prints, a melange of musical samples, and some strange interstitial techniques like a woman rocking a baby in a cradle (representing the passage of time between the film’s chosen eras) and a background shot that includes what looks like the script/screenplay for “Intolerance” itself – how meta. Textual snippets are also given period-specific cards, such a tablet for the Babylonian story.
“Intolerance” is 99 years old this year, but perhaps because of its cosmopolitan subject matter it seems less dated than “The Birth of a Nation,” which represented and embraced the retrograde racial attitudes of its period. Another thing that makes “Intolerance” seem so modern is it ambition. The budget ran well into the millions of USD – in 1916! The sets, such as the Babylonian city that Cyrus besieges, are sprawling and look great almost a century on – behind the color-tinted shots and film crackles, they now seem as old as the times they tried to depict.
Some of the film’s imagery and topics, especially in the Babylonian scene, remain relevant for 21st century viewers. The issue of whose god is mightier – Bel-Marduk or Ishtar – and the shots of people falling to their deaths while large (siege) towers topple has uncomfortable symmetry with 9/11, for instance.
Part of what is so striking to me now, though, about “Intolerance” and silent films in general, is how “Internet”-like the entire experience is. There’s the variable pacing of moving from one card to the next and reading the text, just like one would do with a webpage (with the important and obvious difference of not being in control of the direction – although one could say that people addicted to Facebook or forum arguments are hardly free from inertia in this regard…). There is the card-by-card, shot-by-shot attention to design and layout (“Intolerance” even has footnotes for some of its textual snippets!) as well.
Earlier this year, I wrote about “the Internet” is a term applied retroactively to a bunch of actually separate histories – networking, software, hardware, etc. – with the added current connotation as a medium through which its users receive information. It used to be called by different names – “cyberspace” is perhaps the best example of this class of outmoded labels, as it conceives of connectivity as a space rather than a medium – and really if one wants to get technical, the vague principles of “the Internet” go all the way back to the telegraph, which was a much bigger break with what came before it than, say, TCP/IP was with its predecessors.
Before watching “Intolerance,” I hadn’t though of silent film as a part of “Internet history.” But the design tropes of silent film are if anything becoming more, not less, prevalent in media. Pushing cards or snippets of content – say, Snapchat Discover, Twitter’s “While You Were Away” feature, or the stream of matches on an app like Tinder – is an essential mechanism for many of today’s mobile services in particular. Integration of video with services like Meerkat (it lets one show live video to her Twitter followers) only makes the lineage from silent film to “the Internet” more apparent.
In a way, “the Internet” hasn’t even caught up to the immersive experience of silent films, which often not only pushed discrete cards and pieces of narration at viewers (ironically, to support a continuous narrative) but also featured live orchestras in grand settings. Videoconferencing (FaceTime, Skype) and the likes of Snapchat are Meerkat strive for that same immediacy that Griffith et al captured in the 1910s.
One more intersection: For someone used to talking movies, watching a silent film can feel really lonely, because no one is talking. For me, this exact sort of silence and proneness to becoming lost in thought – for better or worse – is endemic to using “the Internet.” It’s strange, really, that in an extroverted society like the U.S., in which silence is barely tolerated in meetings etc., that so much mental energy is channeled into the inaudible actions of responding to emails or skimming BuzzFeed. I would much rather wordlessly watch “Intolerance” again.
For the vast majority of Facebook users, there is no notion of Facebook without News Feed and its inevitable stream of political polemics, cat photos, and here’s-me-on-Mount-Everest status updates. But Facebook existed for 2.5 seemingly interminable years without it. Plus, its introduction in August 2006 sparked a strong backlash that, in retrospect, looks weird and out of step with the “progress” of social media, but also predicative of the byzantine privacy maze that would ultimately drive numerous Facebook users away to Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram (and yes, I know that Instagram “is” Facebook, technically, but all of its value-add was created by the original Instagram team and it would never have succeeded if mobile-addled Facebook had conceived it).
I began using Facebook in the late summer of 2004 on a Dell desktop running Windows XP (almost everyone at my university had a similar machine; if I were to return today, I suspect I would struggle to find any student who had a desktop running any OS). It’s startling to think about what a cesspool consumer Wintel computing was at that time. Microsoft’s blasé attitude toward security meant that your machine could contract a terminal virus anytime you ventured into the wild west of Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, the wide-open, custom-wallpapered world of MySpace was the default “open” (very much so) tool for networking with friends online, and it possessed a similar “enter if you dare” air. In this context, Facebook was startling. A walled garden with a minimalist look, limited to other university students, and safe: it was an oasis. It was a harbinger of the end of Wintel dominance (which incidentally peaked that year) and the rise of newer, more closely controlled platforms.
Opening up pre-News Feed Facebook took you to your profile, when included some oddities as a fully editable “wall,” a laundry list of your attributes (birthday, last update, etc), and a modest “Quick Search” box in the upper left, which let you find your friends or perform general stalking (just kidding). During this time, the careful pruning and customization of one’s profile consumed most of the time that s/he spent on Facebook.
News Feed changed that in 2006. It was perhaps Facebook’s last innovation, the one that made Facebook look like it does now, and it was very forward-looking for a company that would in subsequent years so often find itself playing catchup. Twitter had been launched only a few months earlier, but wouldn’t really take off for several more years. News Feed was, for ~8 million users, the first look at an easily navigable timeline of status updates and posts. Facebook was now as much about reading the brags of others and it was about bragging on one’s own behalf. It was a flood of information, like a mini-Google for one’s own contacts.
But on the back of Facebook’s runaway user growth in the late 00s and its attendant drive toward monetization, News Feed’s value as a way to get, well, news about friends, began to deteriorate. The informally dubbed, completely opaque EdgeRank algorithm began to prioritize certain types of posts and traffic, meaning that you might never see a friend’s post without having to go to her actual profile. Facebook Ads further muddled the News Feed with “targeted” garbage, making AdBlock all but necessary for viewing the site, but even that slight fix didn’t address the eccentricities of EdgeRank.
Basically, Facebook (in its defense) matured at an odd time in computing. Its explosion in growth neatly dovetailed with the rise of the iPhone and Android. Along the way, it clung to the desktop-born paradigm of having a “profile” while also trying to keep up with new mobile app usage paradigms. It’s funny to look back at it now, but Steve Jobs’ demo of something as completely-taken-for-granted-now as a scrollable contacts list (when he showed off the first iPhone) forced Facebook’s hand. It needed better, more scrollable content in a continuous stream, rather than the discrete profiles that has been its original bread and butter.
The obvious solution to this need has been more focus on images and videos, both from a content curator’s perspective (for Facebook) and a user’s perspective (since sharing images/video feels a bit easier than typing out long textual updates on a mobile device). Facebook has been forced to keep up with both Google+ and Tumblr on these fronts, two networks that came of age once mobile was already in full swing and hence had more time to accommodate image sharing and streams/feeds from the ground up.
Facebook is too late in making these changes. At best, they could have implemented them several years ago when Flipboard launched, since Flipboard’s ability to aggregate your Facebook feed is already a far more progressive view of how one’s News Feed and Wall can be translated into a mobile-friendly, images-first format. Of course, the number of Flipboard users is small relative to the number of Facebook users, so Facebook hasn’t been hurt by its dalliance. And that’s part of the issue: Facebook, like the horrible XP cesspool I mentioned at the outset, has so many users that it can almost afford to be lazy or careless with the quality of its product, since critical mass was reached so long ago and the costs of leaving can be painful.
Today’s Google+–inspired updates to the News Feed – which now permits multiple feeds and greater priority for photos and videos has a ton of minuses for users, including louder/more prominent ads (for the sad souls who don’t use AdBlock) and more opacity in terms of EdgeRank algorithms. But it may have a slight plus (no pun intended), too. With the gradual pollution of the News Feed and the concomitant rise of Graph Search (even if overrated), there may be an opportunity for individual profiles to shine again.
Tired of News Feed? Then use Graph Search to get away and find profiles more easily. It’s perhaps ironic that Facebook’s efforts at mobile-centric modernization may take it back to its roots as a profile-based service (with an assist from its Graph Search), but I think it’s a predictable consequence of Facebook’s monetization. It isn’t part of a wider ecosystem like Google+, nor well-defined by a particular demographic (artists) like Tumblr, so it has to be increasingly forward it how it tries to get revenue from its incredibly varied users. With these stabs at making more money from larger photos and larger ads, user fatigue may continue to rise and drive users back to the profile basics, whether they were there in the 2004-2006 ancient history era or not.
But will that profile-checking occur on Facebook or elsewhere? A major part of Facebook fatigue is that Facebook has too many opaque mechanisms – byzantine privacy controls, EdgeRank algorithms, inconsistent/unpredictable search results – which get in the way of actually comfortably/safely connecting. For many users, these obstacles can be overcome, in the way that enterprise software users often overcome terrible products and continue being productive, at least at some cost. The relative anonymity of Tumblr, or the clean feeds/profiles of Google+ provide real alternatives, but as much as I’d like to hope that better products will win out, Facebook will sputter on, til at least 2023 or something.
-The ScreenGrab Team
Thanks to The Economist and TechCrunch, there is now apparently an elite four in the tech world: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. These are the companies that will apparently shape the near and medium term future in tech. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has proposed (and rightfully, I think) that Samsung be added as a fifth member.
Nearly any article on this quartet has its contents section overwhelmed by missives about the injustice of Microsoft’s omission from this group. This surprises me. Not because it’s an unreasonable argument but because it gets raised before: “why is Facebook in this group?”
Zuckerberg et al are here in the same breadth with the world’s most valuable corporation (Apple), its most prolific mobile software developer (Google), and its preeminent online retailer and cloud provider (Amazon). If you add Samsung, then you get to also include the world largest phone maker. By contrast, Facebook is a website that sells a relatively modest number of ads. Whereas the other players have their fingers in numerous pies and are seeking more and more dominion over digital life, Facebook is essentially playing defense against startups.
By that I mean Facebook’s every move is driven by its obsession with protecting its website, which Business Insider once surmised was perhaps just a latter-day form of webmail, a portal not unlike Yahoo! thru which users would go to check statuses and maybe click some ads. Yahoo! has a multibillion dollar business, but then again, its not often mentioned as one of the elite four of tech.
The last major innovation Facebook made was the News Feed, which was met with comical outrage upon its original release – it is now essentially the best reason for using Facebook. Timeline only rearranged the profile display, while Subscribe was a knee-jerk reaction to Twitter. Meanwhile, products like Questions and Poke tried and failed to compete with Quora and Snapchat, respectively.
Business Insider in its aforementioned story offered that 2013 was make or break for Facebook becoming a hub of music discovery. This seems fair – Facebook has had a long, long time to become a “platform,” but it really has not succeeded except as a means of playing Zynga games or fake slot machines. Facebook is currently more a destination rather than a true portal – it resembles Yahoo! even more in this respect, since the key difference between Yahoo! and Google is that people simply go to Yahoo! to read mail and maybe click a story, then leave, whereas Google is the gateway to the Web
By playing defense all the time, first against Instagram and now against Snapchat, I’m not sure that Facebook has left itself much space to drive into more aggressive forward looking products. Why didn’t they think of a sexting asp first, when Facebook Messenger has over 50 million users? How did the world’s largest photo repository miss the simple social charm of Instagram?
That said, using Facebook is almost a basic necessity for keeping in touch, something that is the envy of every other app in existence. It’s almost as humdrum as email by now, even if its mobile apps are just confusing, overcrowded concoctions (its Android app became tolerable with the introduction of native code, but is still by far the worst-performing app I’ve ever used on my Nexus 4, which is remarkable given all the garbage in Google Play).
But it’s fragile, and it’s still just a website at heart. Think of the massive sea-change that would need to occur for Apple, Amazon, Samsung, or Google to become irrelevant and/or be forced to make an impulse buy of a direct competitor. Facebook may yet graduate to their league, but I think the question isn’t whether Samsung is horseman #5, but whether Facebook should even be horseman #4.