Does Facebook bring us closer?

What does Facebook do

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.

Wanted Cursor

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.

Closeness Vs Connectivity

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,



31 thoughts on “Does Facebook bring us closer?

  1. Thanks for this post. I am one of the few Facebook holdouts. Never started a Facebook account despite tons of pressure to do so. I have actually lost contact with some friends because I am not on Facebook and they forget about me! For example, they post pics of the kids or info about their lives that never reaches me bc I am not one of their “friends.” I do have a couple of really great, close, 3-dimensional friends that I see and talk to daily (depth, not width); however, like you say in your post, Facebook isn’t just a novelty anymore, it’s a part of life, and I wonder when I am going to be forced to break down and open the account.

    • It’s weird. We tend to slip off people’s radars when not active on Facebook. I bottomed out my activity on it for a couple of months and found during that time I saw less of my friends. Now I’m a bit more active and things are back to ‘normal’. It’s only then we can appreciate how passively reliant we’ve become on technology to simulate our contacts, and the true extent of our actual social network.

      Keep fighting the bandwagon Jess if it helps you maintain depth!

  2. I left FB last June after finally admitting how addicted I was. Friends usually numbered around 300 but that was way too many to keep up with. Some I knew, most I didn’t. Many were cats. Two were dead cats. Yes, I was friends with dead cats on Facebook.

    I miss the pictures and news from family. I miss the cat role playing stories. Other than that, nah. Not so much.

  3. I abdicated my facebook profile when Google+ came out, hoping that the people I really cared for would eventually migrate. That has only been moderately successful, but I will say that Google Plus discussions are appreciably deeper, more close, than fb interactions for me. But after almost a year of zero fb activity, I’ve started up again because some people are never going to make the switch. There are a few of those people with whom I engage deeply on fb and in no other media, and I don’t want to lose them.

    But on the whole, I ignore most of my news feed and barely post a fb status (other than a photo). I virtually never post interesting articles on fb but I frequently do post them to G+ and sometimes I even get a meaningful discussion going.

    I currently live far away from all of my close friends and family. There are only three people in my entire state that I engage deeply with on any sort of regular basis. In this way social networks are necessities for me–but perhaps they also provide wide connectivity that reduces my motivation to create offline relationships in my physical proximity. I big factor of this is my current residence in a very conservative state–I am a very liberaly person. I can get a wide, but ultimately agreeable, connection online. I’d have to make much greater effort to connect twith the mainly politically and socially different people in physical proximity.

    • Thanks for your comment, it’s very insightful. What is it about Google+ which encourages deeper/longer-form interaction?

      Your point about FB deferring the need to make proximate relationships is really true. The internet’s characterised as the ‘information liberation machine’, but ironically we can also effectively opt out of our civil engagement in a forum of competing worldviews, identities, cultures and ideas and exist entirely in an echo chamber. It stultifies discourse. In fact that seems to be the majority course.

      To quote Bill Maher, why is it in the ‘information age’, it’s harder than ever to get information into people’s heads? I’m sure you can sympathise with that lol.

      • I think a number of factors encourage deep/long-form interaction on G+, but I think most of them are actually separate from the technology itself. First, G+ always has been and I think remains a self-selected community of users dissatisfied enough with fb that they chose the daunting task of switching social networks. Sometimes, especailly in the beginning or if you have yet to hook into shared-interest circles, G+ can feel like a wasteland. Also, G+ launched in a moment of greater social networking awareness than fb did. I joined fb as a freshman in college, 18 years old, when it was new. I think fb gets a LOT of new members when they are young and not necessarily thinking about the long-term effect of their online presence. Now I’m an attorney starting a career and I view G+ as a vehicle to show the world what I have to offer, as well as a “social network.” To this day my fb use hasn’t really reached that level–it is simply a playground for light-hearted griping or joking. Arrested development in fb, I guess.

        A caveat to the above is that there are certainly users on G+ who use it exactly the same way they use fb and other social networks, some who even cross-post everything so all of their networks are virtually identical (except, probably, in the responses they receive to those posts).

        I think the lesson to be learned is that democratization of information sharing isn’t enough. To be a well-read and well-rounded individual, we still have to make an effort to be good information citizens–to go out and expose ourselves to information from a variety of sources and to consider those sources carefully before offering or perpetuating an opinion based on gut reactions. This is why I think one of the most important values we can teach future generations is the ability to think CRITICALLY, think OFTEN, and think INDEPEDNENTLY.

          • No, please – your comment is so stellar that it’s way above the level of nitpicking typos.

            G+ as a self-selected community is intriguing, sort of like a resistance movement. I wonder what the tipping point is where certain networks, originally born in resistance to a preexisting one, will become another megalith themselves.

            Also I love you for saying what you said about critical thinking. I used to teach English to high-schoolers (just at a local Saturday school) and the one thing I’d always use to frame the lessons was critical thinking.

            Kids aren’t used to it, but once they get it, they get why it’s so powerful.

  4. You are seriously a talented writer! Kudos to you.
    I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It is such a standard in most people’s lives that to boycott Facebook sometimes comes at the price of never hearing from some people again. I definitely see the benefits of having one forum where you can simultaneously broadcast an idea, article, announcement, etc. but the problem is that instead of being a supplement to socialization, Facebook has become a substitute. It’s a tragedy! There is an enthralling mysticism about in-person encounters that will be completely lost on those (myself included) who buy into the delusion that Facebook alone can provide depth.
    I have many non-proximal family and friends and they are the reason I use Facebook, but honestly sometimes I think writing a good old fashioned letter would provide more substance than a post on a timeline ever could. I wonder how many of my Facebook friends would actually take the time to reply via snail mail…
    Keep writing please! Loving your thought-provoking posts!

    • Thanks Kat! Definitely agree about Facebook coming to substitute actual interaction rather than supplement it.

      Snail mail is great because it requires effort and more thought, it’s not a throw-away comment. Like a phone call it’s more personal and significant. At the same time, throw-away comments and idle chit-chat make up an indispensable part of our social milieu. It’s all about maintaining a balance.

  5. While I think that nothing can replace ‘face to face’ interaction, I do find that FB has in many ways deepened my appreciation of people. It has helped me to discover unexpected facets of their lives that I would not have done otherwise. I’ve discovered that people I thought were dull, actually had a great sense of humour, or someone else had a hidden talent for poetry. You get get to know tiny details of people which somehow ‘flesh’ them out and help you to ‘see’ them, in ways you would not be able to do in normal conversation. For eg: who would say in aregular conversation – ‘I was feeling down and I saw a kingfisher dart by, and somehow that cheered me’ or ‘I baked apple cinnamon muffins today’. One might, with a few close friends, but on FB as you share with a wider circle of friends you are disclosing yourself and discovering others. FB always makes me feel like I’m walking down a long corridor with open doors, and there are unexpected treasures behind each door – there are people waiting to sparkle.

    • That’s deep. And I like that about Facebook too, the way you can get glimmers of introverted humanity underneath a lot extroverted broadcasts. It deepens our understanding of the people we already know in that way, which is a good thing. Thank you for your comment!

    • I am not necessarily a Facebook user, and when people began connecting with Facebook through cell phones, I fell off the map even almost completely.
      However, I noticed something interesting among the friends I’d physically see daily: they had been playing games, like Words with Friends, with people that they were not necessarily ‘friends’ with.
      What is pretty amazing is that it re-instilled a sense of ‘play’ among adults — a sense of play that is reminiscent of children on a playground asking another child to play tag, or build a sand castle. It is great that people who are “connected,” exterior acquaintances of each other, can simply reach out to eachother with an invitation to play a game and breed actual friendships out of the experiences.
      I guess it is one of those mediums that is what you make it…

  6. Two things came to my mind on reading your brilliant post. The first is an advertisement being broadcast on local cable in my country which shows a septuagenarian staring at a laptop screen and proclaiming that when he was 25, conversations were made ‘face-to-face’ and not on Facebook. The second is a very famous song in my mother-tongue (Bengali) by the first Bengali pop band which asks the audience to ponder on the distance in light-years that has come between men today even though science proclaims that ‘satellite’ and ‘cable’ has ‘made the world a smaller place still’. I was actually hooked to your post because your post asks the same thing that the Bengali band ‘Mohiner Ghoraguli’ asked about forty years back. If men were light-years apart then, how far apart are we today? I completely agree with your notion of depth of relations decreasing but width increasing with our increasing virtual existence. In fact, I have had tiffs with several of my close friends on account of what I perceive as their ‘shallowness’ and ‘Facebook oriented living’. Having deleted, restored, again deleted, then again restored my Facebook account out of this frustration, I have actually come to terms with the realization that it has become a way of life and that it will be a very hard swim against the tide if I decide to abstain. So, I personally try balancing my Facebook life with the real flesh-and-blood one so as to survive without it on occasions such as travels (WiFi is a remote dream in most parts of my country). I thank you for your post that has dared raising this question, but I shall have to admit that I will resort to the publicity on Facebook to ‘spread your word’. Best wishes!

    • My husband is also a serial offender of the delete/restore/delete/restore social networking profiles variety. It’s difficult to find the desired balance between connectivity and boundaries, particularly if you guard your privacy and the depth of your relationships closely.

      • That is true. And to that reason I personally often add childlike grudge (on somebody close) to aide me in clicking that delete button. It is like we ourselves are making and destroying our personal “Horcruxes” every time that delete or restore button is clicked. In the end I guess we are getting as detached from life and love as Voldemort.

    • Is this it? ‘Prithibita Naki Choto Hote Hote’? I like it, and it talks about a side-effect of ‘globalisation’ (although I’m skeptical if that’s a thing) that no one rarely talks about: the faster and further our ability to communicate, the more distant and atomised we can afford to be.

      Thanks for sharing (even if it is on Facebook lol).

  7. I’m another lover/hater of facebook. I love the simplicity – it’s so easy to keep in contact with people that way, but I hate it because that makes me hate that I am too lazy to pick up the ‘phone and arrange to meet up with my friends – you’re right, it takes the depth out of our interaction. I’ll temper that with the idea that I am able to keep in contact better with those I am physically unable to meet up regularly with (e.g. people from my previous life “up North”, or my best friend who moved to Montana last month). I am also a hater in the idea that nothing is private – you can’t control who sees what exactly, and while I appreciate this doesn’t have the most wide ranging of impacts (perhaps friends of friends can see my friend’s comment on my status), it’s still an impact that I don’t much care for. Lastly, I don’t like that you can infer tone incorrectly and things blow out of proportion. Hmm… Why am I on facebook again!?

    Great post!

    • That privacy issue is the dealbreaker for many people. I think something Facebook has done is confuse the possibility of being identified with the possibility of being recognised – the former is a proactive process, and the latter is reactive.

      This might sound artsy and esoteric (blame the BA for that) but I’m gonna say it anyway. In many ways Facebook is like a book. Our relationships are laid out in a sort of narrative timeline, life unfolds in status updates and pictures. But also, no matter how real an emotion we can get from a book, ultimately a book is a simulation of an experience. Maybe Facebook is a simulacrum of social experience in the same way.

      Hmm… my douche level is astronomical right now.

  8. Great post. And some great follow-up comments too (this won’t be one of them… I ramble!)
    I also would love facebook to be a supplement to rather than a substitute for ‘real world’ relationships.
    one of the most annoying things for me is that I find it hard to know, without the added information from body language and tone, when it is appropriate to comment or stay silent. If someone to tell me something in person about their rubbish day, even if I don’t know them well, I can be genuinely interested and sympathetic if needs be… But it’s the generic:
    “woe is me”,
    “awww…are you alright hon?”
    (and it’s always ‘hon’/’hun’ … Or ‘babe’!),
    “yeah, it’s nothing really, how are you?”
    That really just winds me up – the over-sharing of info that would be best talked about in person (or at least via private message – I tend to do that a lot more now, myself).
    I don’t pretend I won’t be back on it, but for the past 3 years I’ve made myself have a ‘Facebook-free February’ … to make sure I’m not addicted and to allow friends a break from my sarcasm.

    • That’s funny yeah, where else will you see so clearly someone complain publicly about something, then deny it privately? The whole exercise is about self-image if that’s the case, which goes back to what the Kent researchers found.

      Good luck for this Feb btw. How have other months gone?

      • If, by ‘the other months’ you mean all the months except February, then I’d say a mixture of interest, mischievousness, friendship, randomness and annoyance. But if you mean the other februarys (? Februaries? – I don’t think I’ve ever written that before, neither look right) then because the reason for the first one was that I was actually enjoying it and spending what I thought was too much time there. This time around it’s because I have become increasingly frustrated so it will be a test to see IF I miss it at all.

  9. Great post and an interesting and sensitive theme. Personally i use facebook just to browse what other people upload and share. I might message my family, since it’s more convenient some hours of the day, but i will not post every tiny detail of my life as some of my contacts in facebook do…in an excessive way actually, To get a bit further, and a bit off topic, i am really laughing when i am discussing with someone and he/she is arguing that “the big brother is coming etc etc” and when i check his profile every single detail of his life is there. from religious and political views even private photos…

    • Yeah lol, we’ve become big brother. Not only that, we’ve always been big brother for each other. I’m with you btw, I usually just hang low in the background, use messenger, comment on other people’s stuff, post only noteworthy stuff, etc.

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