When iPad met Facebook

The arrival of Apple's iPad won't solve media content problems, but it will provide the slickest vehicle yet for the proliferation of social media.

Salon.com

The magic begins with the first sentence:

A scandal has erupted in the City Council of Bulgaria's Plovdiv as several councillors have been caught milking virtual cows on the Facebook application Farmville.

Farmville is a game in which players advance by gradually expanding the diversity and range of crops and livestock raised on their farms. While it might not boast the intense graphics or immersive gameplay of "World of Warcraft" or "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," the game is still apparently much more interesting than the mundane details of city business. One councillor, Dimitar Kerin, representing the nationalist party Ataka, even got himself voted off the council for refusing to stop watering his "virtual eggplants." That inspired a classic defence – Kerin wasn't the only council member who couldn't close his web browser!

He said he had reached only Level 40, whereas Daniela Zhelyazkova, a councillor from the rightist Democrats for Strong Bulgaria party, was already at Level 46.

Like Julian Dibbell, the master chronicler of all things virtual, who brought this important story to my attention via a series of tweets, I just cannot get enough of this story of Facebook cultural imperialism run amok. I enjoy my time on Facebook, but I also recognise a disconcerting vacuousness at the heart of my social media engagement – too much time keeping up with everyone's status updates can prevent me from getting anything meaningful done. What happens when entire cultures become addicted to virtual farming? How will civilisation proceed?

Plovdiv is no hick backwater, by the way – it's the second largest city in Bulgaria, boasting a rich history dating back thousands of years. The Macedonian King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, conquered the Thracian settlement Eumolpias in 342 BC and promptly renamed it Philippopolis, the name by which the city was known to the West for thousands of years. (Plovdiv is a variation of "Pulpadeva" – the Thracian translation of Philippopolis.) Think about that: 342 BC – conquered by Philip II 2010 AD – overrun by Farmville. The question is posed: Maybe civilisation hasn't advanced?

Perhaps you weren't expecting to be reminded of the exploits of Philip II's phalanxes in a story about Farmville addiction in Bulgaria. Nor was I expecting, when I went to read Margaret Atwood's wonderful New York Review of Books blog post about her experiences with Twitter, to see Hammurabi, Wordsworth, Hermes the Communicator, and the Patriarch Isaac share space with "the Purple Cross-eyed Zozzle Curse." But that's one of the marvels of our networked infosphere: The time it takes to cross the distance between the ridiculous and the sublime or the trivial and the profound has collapsed beyond our ken. Everything you ever wanted to know about Plovdik is just a Wikipedia click away from time spent counting how many friends "liked" the last link you posted; a mere mouse twitch from Margaret Atwood's "nothing ventured, no brain drained" homage to the Twitterverse. Some things are clearly high culture, others not, but the intermingling is beyond promiscuous – a function of the medium.

Effort spent decoding the emerging cultures of social media may be more relevant than ever right now, as we count down the days to the iPad's official arrival in stores on Saturday. The latest word is that an examination of the entrails of Asian electronics manufacturers hints that the early estimates for iPad sales in 2010 may be on the low side. Some analysts are now suggesting as many as 10 million iPads might ship this year.

Such numbers would represent another stunning success for Steve Jobs and Co. But what will widespread iPad popularity mean? The gamut of critical response to the iPad so far ranges between a Pollyanna-ish faith that the new device will solve the vexing problem of consumers who are unwilling to pay for media content online, and a furrowed perplexity that wonders why anyone would want to pay premium dollars for what is essentially a crippled computer.

Both extremes miss the point of what people actually do online, whether they are city councillors in Plovdik, Bulgaria or Twitter followers of Margaret Atwood.

They play and communicate and search. The iPad, I'm guessing, will make such behaviour even easier.

That may seem ridiculous – how could anything be easier than Google or Facebook or Twitter, as currently constituted? But to even ask that question underestimates just how profound the recent penetration of the internet into mainstream everyday life has become. What was once a geeky passion is now regarded as practically a utility, or a birthright. We expect the air to be drinkable, water to come out of the faucet and internet access to be magically all around us. Our music, our games, our friends – on tap, in the ether, 24 by seven. But the infrastructure is still glitchy – it doesn't always work. The iPad is yet another delivery vehicle for the ubiquity we demand. And probably the slickest one yet.

People will use it, but more for their own purposes than for the likes of The New York Times or Wired. The iPad will not solve the content business model problem, but I'm betting a lot of virtual farms will be growing on these new tablets, and an awful lot of people will find something to say to each other via their shiny new touch-sensitive big screens, whether in 140 character bursts, New York Review of Books blog posts, or in the middle of Central European municipality council meetings.

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