Facebook phone: how to kill journalism in 10 easy steps

A Facebook phone? Yawn. Cringely checks out the real action: The lifecycle of an Internet rumor and its repercussions

God, I love the InterWebs. Years from now, scholars dissecting the complete disintegration of journalism in the 21st century will look back at us and say, what the frak? The example du jour: The Facebook Phone rumors, which were sparked this past weekend by TechCrunch and continue to burn.

If you believe what you read on the Web, Facebook is coming out with a phone. Unless of course it isn't. If you think about it, a Facebook phone makes absolutely perfect sense -- except for when it doesn't. Facebook denies the whole thing, which means of course it's lying. And a Facebook-centric phone would be cool, if you temporarily forget that Facebook apps are already on every smartphone known to mankind, and phones built around social networking have been on the market for over a year.

No, the details of a Facebook-built phone are less interesting to me than how this story perfectly illustrates the 10-step lifecycle of a Net-borne rumor, circa 2010.

It goes something like this:

1. Facebook has a phone (TechCrunch). Never mind that the site offers no details, proof, or sources beyond some anonymous biped "who has knowledge of the project." All this meme requires are the words "Facebook phone" and we're off to the races.

2. Is Facebook building a phone? (Everyone else). Translation: We're not sure we actually believe this (we are talking about TechCrunch, after all), but if we don't run with this story, we're screwed, so we're covering our asses by phrasing it as a question replete with heavy doses of skepticism.

3. Fictitious features leaked. The next wave of bloggers provide the details the original report lacked. For example: The Facebook phone will run the Android operating system. Hey, it's a safe bet. What else would it run -- Apple's iOS? Symbian? Windows Mobile? The best part: It doesn't matter if they're wrong, because who's gonna go back and check?

4. Early photos of Facebook phone leaked. Regardless of whether the phone exists beyond the fevered imagination of some anonymous source, somebody somewhere will dig up pictures of the alleged handset -- or, even better, claim to have obtained one from a shadowy source.

(For example: eSarcasm claims to have unearthed a Facebook phone via circumstance not entirely unlike that of Engadget getting its hands on an early iPhone 4, only substitute a Palo Alto public restroom for a San Jose hofbrau. Given that the "face fone" bears more than a passing resemblance to a V-Tech Handy Manny toy cell phone, we suspect they're just having us on.)

5. Why the world needs a Facebook phone. These bloggers missed the whole "Facebook is building a phone" rush because it happened on a weekend while they were off having a life, so they're trying to make up for it with an analytical story that discusses the many reasons why a Facebook phone would make sense.

6. Why the world doesn't need a Facebook phone. These guys saw the last run of analytical pieces and wanted to jump in the water before it got too cold. It's a weak play, but at this point it's all they got.

7. Facebook issues denials. Facebook's PR department finally checks its Google alerts and sees storm clouds rising over the blogosphere, then issues a bland but comprehensive denial that it emails to major news outlets and gradually seeds across the Net, inciting another round of posts.

8. Facebook's denial is further proof that it is making a phone. Now we're back to TechCrunch again, defending its original story. If the author is Arrington (and it is), the response will include name calling and personal attacks on Facebook's PR team.

To be fair to TechCrunch, this cycle played itself out in much the same way around a "Google phone" last winter. And sure enough, the Nexus One appeared shortly thereafter -- though it didn't quite turn out to be the earth-shattering event those blogs predicted. It's possible that will happen here as well.

9. Facebook vs. the blogosphere. Here's the classic he said/she said spitting match between the blogs and the alleged phone maker, which is good for yet another round of posts. Because if Facebook were indeed making a phone, of course they would deny it. And if they weren't making a phone, they'd also deny it. So when your odds are 50/50, you might as well go with the juicier story. Right?

10. What should a Facebook phone look like? These bloggers get to ignore the whole question of whether this story is true and dive straight into fantasy, which is always fun because it requires much less research. You pretty much empty your brain into WordPress until you hit the magic 400-word minimum Google News requires and click "Publish." This is blogging at its finest.

And I guess I should add an 11th: Analysis of the whole rumor cycle, which so far includes this blog post.

We're now living in the golden age of meta journalism, with this post qualifying as meta-meta journalism. (Hey, I never meta journalist I didn't like. Ba-dum-bump. Thank you, thank you very much. Please tip your waitresses.) But remember, you read it here first. Unless you didn't.

If Facebook were building its own phone (not that I'm saying it is), would you buy one? Email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

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