Poke. Poke. Like. Tag. Like. Comment. Stalk. Share. Message. Backstab. Poke. Like.
Ok, that was a tad simplistic (I forgot Farmville), but this pretty much sums up a day in the life for many of Facebook’s 584 million daily active users. And it’s pretty normal to us now.
Being around since 2004, Facebook is way past the point of novelty and has become a ubiquitous fact of modern life. 1 billion registered users would make it the third largest country in the world, and 604 million daily active mobile users would make it one of the most fast-paced. It’s undeniable that today a large part of our lives are lived beneath that cosy blue banner.
For these posts though I want you to take a step back and out of your comfort zone by asking just how, if at all, Facebook works as a surrogate for social presence. And I want to look at this question on a few levels, first the local, then the global (part 2) and finally the commercial (part 3).
In the rise of Facebook (and other social networking sites), we’ve sort of tacitly assumed that a comment on someone’s timeline is directly equivalent to a comment made face-to-face, or that a ‘like’ is the same as giving a holla by tipping your hat (as though we live in some Dickensian fantasy-world). In fact this is the only way our behaviour on Facebook makes sense. If we stop thinking of a mouse-click as a symbolic action synonymous with an actual social activity, the whole framework falls down. It’s only because we attach a face to the click that the click carries actual social weight.
A lot of this seems unnoteworthy, and you’re right. For the most part this suspension of disbelief is harmless and is useful in facilitating, replicating and even substantiating our social networks. I’ve talked about how interactions over Skype are neurochemically watered-down versions of face-to-face contact, and in many ways our interactions with one another on Facebook are an even more diluted version of that. Written sentences and mouse-clicks can never fully capture things like body language, subtle changes in tone, or that irreplaceable feeling we get when being physically present with people we know and love. But they do help humanise the otherwise impersonal task of personal computing.
EDIT: In fact it’s been shown that engaging in a mental simulation of a physical activity, when done for a long time in multiple sittings, can produce to a slightly lesser degree the neurophysiological changes equivalent to those that would occur if you had physically done the activity itself. Put simply, by imagining something vividly enough, the brain can essentially rewire itself (but crucially, not as strongly as it would if actually doing the thing). So far this has only been documented in activities which involve fine motor skills, but considering how interrelated regions of the brain are, it may be the case, although this should be taken with a massive grain of salt, that socialising through a simulator like Facebook as a precursor for social behaviour may actually contribute net positively to our ability to socialise, not negatively as touted by mainstream media. If you’re interested in this area of neuroplasticity, I highly recommend checking out this great video by ASAPscience and this ARN article from 2005.
At the same time though, this mentally social mindset can come at a physical cost. Not a large one, but a noticeable one. Robert Putnam puts it neatly in his 1995 essay Bowling Alone when talking about television and its effect on ‘privatising’ downtime:
Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment.”
In the same way, our number of Facebook friends can easily skyrocket into the hundreds, but the lived reality of our relationships is always much humbler. What we have is width without depth.
This claim is somewhat quantified by recent study. In 2011, researchers at Kent State found that although broadcasting the best of ourselves to a large number of friends on Facebook boosts our self image, when times get tough the perceived social support we need is just not there. Meanwhile, a more down-to-earth and others-orientated approach to using Facebook yielded smaller networks but an increase in perceived social support. Another paper in 2012 saw those low in self-esteem ‘friend’ people on Facebook more actively as a type of compensation, rather than a means to facilitate preexisting interpersonal relationships.
And in a Cornell study led by Matthew Brashears which gained considerable media coverage, it’s suggested that the number of people we consider close friends – when modelled – has steadily contracted since 1985 to 2010, from 3 down to 2.03. I should say, as Brashears himself stresses, that this doesn’t mean we’re becoming antisocial, or asocial. It simply means that social activities are becoming increasingly subsumed and supplemented by non-traditional forms in which ‘closeness’ is positioned as a cog within a broader paradigm of ‘connectivity’.
Being connected, not necessarily close, has come to characterise the narrative through which we understand our relationships today.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t and don’t have meaningful relationships with friends, family, neighbours etc. It’s obvious that we can and do. But when we talk about connectivity, and look at the ways that word is used today, it’s clear that it’s referring to something else while being equated to the type of interaction we experience with friends, family, neighbours etc., regardless of whether it’s directly analogous or not. When conflated in this way it becomes important to think about the new criteria for locating and categorising those real, meaningful, close relationships within a larger conceptual spectrum of relationships which aren’t so real, or not real in the same sense, yet still carry important social significance in today’s world.
This is getting quite dense. Let’s backtrack. On one hand we have relationships with real people in the real world – anything from soulmates to Starbucks to strangers. On the other hand, we also deal with close replicas of those relationships online, modeled off of profoundly different social dynamics (such as anonymity, absence, asymmetricity). Call it the uncanny valley of human interaction.
But we talk about them as though they’re the same, and we use the same language of ‘connectivity’ to talk about them both. This in turn makes us conceive of them in the same way. It seems these two distinct clouds of relationships converge and collapse in the metaphor of the ‘social network‘, which in many ways is the go-to, if not the only, descriptor for modern interaction. But is it helpful to entangle the question of modern personhood in computational analogies like these? Is someone’s connectability as important an attribute of their identity as their surname or portfolio?
I’m probably overthinking this. Probably. Definitely. Forget I said anything.
As with most things it’s hard to pinpoint what ultimate effect Facebook has on our immediate social networks, and just how much of those networks are inflated by empty space. I think a distinction between closeness and connectivity is important, but not sacrosanct, in conceptualising this issue. If closeness describes the depth, the quality of relationships, then connectivity describes the width, the quantity of them, and the activities associated with cultivating visibility.
If that’s the case, maybe Facebook doesn’t bring us quite as close as we think. But what do you think? On a local level is Facebook better at facilitating width, or depth? Or both equally? What functions of Facebook would you group under each category?
Til next time,