Sunday, January 31, 2010

Facebook, the internet and community

One of my minds many backburners has been simmering away for months at the idea of quitting facebook. Sure, I could have better used that backburner on some research question which would improve the grade quality of my degree, but we can’t be all work.

I haven’t been methodical, weighing pros and cons, or categorising the things I have read when I look at the broader implications of a facebook universe. To be completely honest, I had a gut instinct long ago telling me to escape from this particular digital moebius strip, and have waffled because my realtime, actual, face-to-face social network is so miniscule, that what the devil offers seems like a good compromise.

Like many of life’s bigger decisions, after prolonged reflection, calculated deliberation and an adequate weighing of the facts, I reneged on making a decision, I prorogued my personal government, I acted as though not deciding was not a decision in itself. I am not an elected official in my own personal kingdom, and yet I often treat controversial decisions as though I were. Seriously, what am I going to do in the face of a poor decision, fire me?

My understanding is that facebook has hundreds of millions of users. I'm sure there is wide variation in how their usage breaks down. Some use it as a convenient message board, some escape and procrastinate through thousands of mindless applications(which exist mostly to capture information –it’s called data mining), some invest exorbitant energy into constructing their online identities and work hard to ensure lots of activity on their page. Some users , like wallflowers of yore, watch the world around them, except with profoundly far reaching abilities—not necessarily stalkers or spies, just a casual ability to view virtual approximations of events in a sort of world very separate from themselves..

All of us, to one degree or another enjoy strange new social properties unheard of in human history. We watch the daily unfolding of life in statuses and comments and links for a brief acquaintance we made decades earlier who we haven’t seen, in years, nor will we ever see again who lives on another continent, and who maybe we have no direct communication with beyond that initial decision to click yes to a friendship request. And, with the esoteric nature of what is private and what is not, we may end up exploring the photos and lists and profiles of friends of friends of friends(and think about how tenuous the link of “friend” is in the first place).

Compare this to a few years ago. You are walking down the street in some city you live in, or are visiting. Across the street, you recognise someone, vaguely . What did you do in this situation versus what do you do now in a facebook universe? Let’s assume the person you recognise isn’t some loathed ex romantic interest, or some other enemy(though people often add these to their friends lists--combining the distant safety of online relations with the desire to promote networks). Let’s say the person across the street is simply someone who was once a neighbour, a classmate, a co-worker. Someone who you knew by first name, even if you were never even full acquaintances, let alone friends—just someone you were aware of. In the analog days of physical interaction, you might have ignored them, even avoided eye contact, because you were too busy to stop for a minutes empty chat, or you might have stopped and said hi, and exchanged a few honest pleasantries. And that would be it.

But today, the “street” you run into another in is the internet, perhaps facebook. The ensuing moment of contact results in a permanent link, keeping you and that other fully up to date on all your daily goings on, and providing some level of access to everyone that each knows.

Now, you are bored at work, or at home on a Saturday night with no good tv shows on, and you are surfing facebook. You see an amusing status update from this near stranger who is now part of your network and you make some pithy comment on their update. Or maybe they voice some cryptic emotional statement and you comment with some human solidarity. This goes on occasionally, back and forth over the months and years, and yet you never interact with this person in any direct or individual way. You look through their friend list for other old schoolmates/colleagues etc. add a few more to your network. And so it goes with pseudo interactions with ever more nebulous contacts who all exist in the category of “friends”.

Would anything remotely like this have occurred in the world where you crossed paths in your real bodies walking down real streets. What does it mean? Does it mean anything? Does it mean anything meaningful? Is it distracting? Does it siphon the little bit of energy you have to contribute to your social health into thousands of meaningless pseudo interactions between essential strangers?

Here is another comparison. Previous to the modern internet, you would have spoken to another person via face to face communication, phone call, letter, even e-mail. In that world, how many of your status updates would you have pronounced to anyone, let alone everyone you have ever known?: “enjoying my coffee”, “hate the rain”, “a certain someone should drop dead, you know who you are”, “is bored”, “wants you to answer question x and then copy and paste said question to your own profile”. We spend real time imagining ourselves and our public personae when we make these pronouncements that we never would have made to any individual, let alone to everyone. Does this say anything about how we think of self and other? About communication, about connection?

I would imagine that most facebook users have happened into contacts they are grateful to have been reunited with, or have been rewarded with human contact during a dark tea-time of the soul because someone responded to their cryptic status update. And that is nice--journalists write warm human interest pieces about such things. But is this representative of the brave new world of facebook and other social network sites?

Maybe it is just the internet in general. Almost nobody makes contact in the real world, meets strangers, strikes up conversations in cafes, bars, or outside movie theatres, but we desperately engage all day and all night on our social network pages, and on semi or completely anonymous comment sections of websites. We write blogs--some people having half a dozen blogs, some private, some public, some anonymous—what a schizophrenic cacophony of identity. We so badly want to be heard and to hear others, maybe engage, maybe be validated, maybe get in a good argument—as long as we don't have to put our real self on the line and engage with another real self that might have some real consequence, some lineage, some history, some reality we have to abide by and react to. We want absolute control on how we are received and when and how much we accept of others. We want our most momentary whim to communicate to be gratified, and then to turn off that tap at another whim, and never revisit it. We want to avoid any responsibility concerned with social engagement. We certainly get to sidestep the kind of responsibility incurred in any real community, and yet we call all these gossamer communications communities. Does the word still retain any meaning?

I am sometimes an alarmist, sometimes a pessimist and often a luddite. But it truly is worth noting, that in a very short span of time, communication technologies have completely changed the way we relate to ourselves and to others. We take it all on in stride amazingly and with very little question or reflection.

Senior citizens who grew up without computers, whose first experience with a mouse that wasn’t made of flesh and blood dates back months, are all out there facebooking, myspacing, blogging, railing in the national papers commentary sections, playing little interactive games. Children born in the last decade or so have no concept of any other world. They learn the iconology of computers before they learn their mother tongue—they can speak to a computer before they can speak to us.

Are we more networked? Do we have stronger communities? Can we get our voices heard in matters that matter? Do we feel less alone in the universe? Are we closer to people who matter? Do we spend more time in high quality social engagement? Are we more deeply engaged in meaningful relationships with others than we were? I'm not really in a position to answer, I am a bit of a misanthrope, so my answers are skewed. Despite my biased viewpoint, I feel fearful about the answers to these questions.

I read about strong communities and about revolutionary activities that benefit communities, but they never have anything to do with the internet or facebook. I am a deeply immersed internet person and I begin to feel that my life was more active, contributed more and was more interactive before the point and click universe became the norm. And yet, what do you do with that kind of thought? Drop out? Run away? Disconnect? Ironically, write about it on your blog? It’s not really different from feeling you don't believe in your government, or the current economic system—it’s not like you can easily leave it behind. What does it mean if you have a gut instinct that tells you to disconnect in order to be better able to connect, but you have no ‘plan b’?


  1. I was having similar thoughts today about telephones- walking around downtown and seeing many people talking to thin air; how strange that people can casually chat with their friends from great distances. And with skype- having a line open to Europe all afternoon, just chatting as the mood takes you to someone 6000 miles away. Reaching out to communicate is no longer a big deal, and no longer demands any intellectual investment (a good excuse to incur long distance charges). To the detriment of actually making real contact with the person that is so easy to reach. That is why I still don't have, and don't want a cell phone. But I want all my friends to have one, so that they are easy to reach.

  2. This was a very thought provoking piece (as per your usual) and I have always had grave doubts about Assbook, but recent events surrounding my teenage son and the damage that can accumulate from having an 'online' persona has me convinced that this is not 'social networking', it's more akin to 'let's pretend'.I wonder if we, as a species, will eventually lose the ability to interact without being in 'screen mode'.

  3. I don't blame you at all! I wonder the same things day in and day out -- why am I on facebook? The more I sit on facebook, I crave live human interaction. I long for the days of human interaction. I too may quit crackbook!

  4. Don't forget to sign into messenger from time to time so we can catch up! :)

  5. I tried to set some inner protocol for filtering out my friend list; something along the lines of, "If you bumped into this person on the street, would you suggest going for a coffee to catch up?" Anyone who doesn't meet that test, gets deleted.

    The thing is, Facebook friends are like material possessions. You need some of them but most of them are just taking up space, things/relationships you picked up in a moment of boredom or the flush of novelty. And although I have once or twice gotten rid of almost all my stuff, usually because I was moving to another city--it's not easy.

    With my pack-rat mentality, the question is always, "Will I need this later? Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it." And so, what if I decide I'd really like to talk to that guy who sat behind me in history class in Grade 7? We had a great time cutting up and annoying the teacher then, why wouldn't we now?

    Maybe someone will do a take on "A Christmas Carol." Scrooge is a bitter, cranky old man with no real friends and does all his socializing through the internet. Then Marley appears, and the links of his chain are all Facebook friends, a blinking, clinking cacophony of status updates, a burden that allows him no peace...