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.
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