Facebook: the social distance network

Social media exist­ed before Face­book. Social media even exist­ed before blogs. Or at least the term social media exist­ed before the term blog. Wikipedia has a list of cri­te­ria (lift­ed from an aca­d­e­m­ic paper behind a fire­wall else I’d cite or quote it here) but today I’m less inter­est­ed in the def­i­n­i­tion of the buzz­word and more inter­est­ed in how our so-called (online) social net­work func­tions to give us a social experience.

Social media, when it’s real­ly social media, is not about what you have to say. It’s hav­ing a tol­er­ance for what peo­ple say about you. Which is so dif­fer­ent from post­ing about your great run. Social media is when they say, «You’re a jack­ass! Stop talk­ing about your run.»

Mer­lin Mann, SxSW 2009

I don’t take Mer­lin to mean that we should­n’t post about going for a run. After all, no one can say «stop talk­ing about your run» unless you first start talk­ing about your run. (Although if “you’re a jack­ass” is the met­ric by which we judge social media to be social, Face­book pass­es with fly­ing colors.)

Social clear­ly does­n’t mean civ­il. Mer­lin’s point was that social media is for peo­ple inter­act­ing with one anoth­er, not just broad­cast­ing their infor­ma­tion about them­selves. You have to be able to have a con­ver­sa­tion, or else your web­site or app may as well be print­ed on paper. Face­book does enable con­ver­sa­tion, no mat­ter how low-qual­i­ty that con­ver­sa­tion often is.

There’s a high­er stan­dard to be set here. Social sit­u­a­tions are not just ones where there are con­ver­sa­tions to be had (even dead­tree pub­li­ca­tions have let­ters to the edi­tor and the like) but where peo­ple have oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet peo­ple that they weren’t already acquaint­ed with. It’s here that Face­book falls flat.

I’ve been on what we can loose­ly call social media for a long time. Email lists, USENET news­groups, and the dial-up BBSes that exist­ed before the Web served much the same pur­pose that Face­book, Twit­ter, and modem web-forum BBSes do today. They enabled group con­ver­sa­tions amongst peo­ple who weren’t in the same phys­i­cal space, using elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy. Some of these things were top­i­cal, some were pure­ly social, but all facil­i­tat­ed con­ver­sa­tion. But they did some­thing else too: they gave peo­ple from dis­parate back­grounds a chance to get to know one another.

Face­book instead dis­cour­ages con­nec­tions with peo­ple you don’t already know. Oh sure, they’re hap­py to make mon­ey intro­duc­ing you to busi­ness­es you don’t already know, but ask your­self this ques­tion: when was the last time you met some­one through Face­book who you did not already know?

This is by design and for some good rea­sons. Face­book has encour­aged users to dis­close a lot of per­son­al infor­ma­tion, and it’s made Face­book a pri­va­cy night­mare on many dif­fer­ent lev­els. Face­book has respond­ed to push­back from users (and gov­ern­ments) by get­ting par­tic­u­lar (at least in some ways) about spread­ing infor­ma­tion about users. That’s fine. I’m glad that I can con­trol whether ran­dos on Face­book can see my mar­i­tal sta­tus or the name of my high school.

The down­side is that Face­book has become insu­lar. A lot has been writ­ten about the bub­bles and echo cham­bers online, but (at least in this post) I’m not pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned about whether I’m exposed to new ideas; I’m ask­ing how I get exposed to new people.

Turns out that look­ing at lists of peo­ple one already knows isn’t a great way to get to know peo­ple one did­n’t already know.

By con­trast, some of my clos­est friends today are peo­ple I met through dial-up BBSes. I went on dates with peo­ple I met not just from dat­ing sites (where that should be con­sid­ered a giv­en) but also with peo­ple I was intro­duced to through Face­book’s pre­de­ces­sors Myspace and Friend­ster, and lat­er on Foun­tain Pen Net­work and the Bay Area Rid­ers Forum. I met peo­ple through Live­Jour­nal and have met peo­ple who became friends through this very web­site and by read­ing oth­er peo­ple’s blogs.

I’m hav­ing trou­ble think­ing of a sin­gle per­son I met through Face­book. Look­ing through my friends list there are a cou­ple of peo­ple there I can’t fig­ure out who they are, so maybe I met those peo­ple through Face­book but I should­n’t call them friends and per­haps should delete them. There are peo­ple I’ve nev­er met in real life, but those are peo­ple who I know I met through some oth­er online venue. There are peo­ple on my friends list I don’t know well at all but whom I met in per­son. But no one — not a sin­gle per­son — who I con­sid­er a friend today and who I first encoun­tered on Facebook.

Viewed from this per­spec­tive it’s hard to think of Face­book as being social at all. When I think of the phrase “social net­work­ing” as it per­tains to the world out­side of Face­book the first thing that comes to mind is meet­ing new peo­ple. Face­book has been pret­ty good at putting me in touch with peo­ple I already know but who I’d lost con­tact with, but with regard to expand­ing my social sphere it has been of no use.

This might be a clue as to why Face­book feels so iso­lat­ing. We can use it to stay up to date with the peo­ple we already know, but we could do that already. Hav­ing a life on Face­book isn’t remote­ly like hav­ing a social life. A social life requires the pos­si­bil­i­ty that one’s social cir­cle might expand. Con­nect­ing with oth­er peo­ple using a 1200 baud modem in 1989 was part of my social life. Face­book nev­er has been, at any speed.

The iso­la­tion of the Face­book expe­ri­ence is exac­er­bat­ed by the inter­ac­tions we have on Face­book. With lit­tle nuance to be found in shared memes, it’s inevitable that dis­agree­ments push us apart in ways that won’t hap­pen in real life. Where once a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion might raise an eye­brow and elic­it a skep­ti­cal inquiry which could lead to more con­ver­sa­tion, the form that dif­fer­ence takes on Face­book ends rather than sparks con­ver­sa­tion. When you post a meme that starts, “hey snowflake” I roll my eyes and my opin­ion of you slides a lit­tle ways toward con­tempt. Whether from there I unfriend or block you, or just pay less atten­tion when your name scrolls by on the feed, the dis­tance between us grows.

Face­book nev­er grows our social cir­cles but con­stant­ly shrinks them. It makes us more dis­tant but nev­er brings us togeth­er. There are con­flict­ing reports about whether social media caus­es or cor­rects social iso­la­tion, but not all social media is the same. It does­n’t all have the same set of incen­tives, rules, or oth­er struc­tures. There are a great many ways to use the Inter­net and the Web to enrich our social lives. Face­book isn’t one of those ways. 

Com­ments are, of course, turned on for this post.

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