Wednesday, 1 July 2009


My cousin Philip posted his thoughts on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and I've been mulling them over ever since. Facebook seems to be getting a bad rep, often from the religious crowd but also among others. I can see it from their perspective, in that the life you live online is by its very nature partial, and that is something that people who are searching for authenticity all the time find problematic. (I know there's more to it than that, but I'll let Philip speak for himself.) I just wanted to put the other try and articulate a bit of why I think Facebook is popular with people from so many areas of society and what I think I take from it. I'm not an avid Facebook browser, but I do think it's a worthwhile enterprise. Probably quite long...

Facebook serves as a space to share things with a large group of people whom you see in person only rarely. I have friends spread around the country, and we meet up a few times a year to do things. But without the freedom facebook affords to say just a sentence to one another now and a again - about a photo of a trip we've been on together say, or a reminiscence about something in our shared past - we might not talk at all, and it would be harder to meet up, and we would find it harder to start conversations when we did meet up, and eventually we might drift apart. The time we actually spend together would be poorer because we wouldn't have a dripfeed of continuity between times. Of course there are more personal ways of contacting one another, but they are all more serious and more time-consuming - and the reality is that we would invest that time only rarely with a few people, or not at all. And friendships would slip away because you've missed some part of someone's life, and the barrier of events that separates you from one another becomes so high that the story of your life since last you met is so unwieldly that you don't know where to start, so you don't start, so it remains a barrier between you and the friendship is lost. Facebook, via the 'little and often' element, helps to prevent that obstacle ever becoming enormous.

It is no substitute for face to face, just an addendum to it. I don't entirely agree with the reasoning behind 'quality not quantity' philosophy that so many people expound as a reason that Facebook is a bad thing. Yes. You suddenly have minor contact with a lot of people. You still have intense contact with a few of them, and you have more contact with the wider circle than you would otherwise. Knowing just a little about the people in the wider network, about how their lives have changed since you did have contact, means that there is always the possibility of revisiting a friendship or intensifying it in a way that wouldn't have been possible before. Maybe you didn't know a schoolfriend was working in your city. Maybe you didn't know someone had a certain interest. Maybe you can re-click. You might come across other acquaintances through them, and be surprised who knows who. What's the real chance of running into the one other peerson you knew from school who lives in Australia, say, in real life? But on Facebook, you can. And suddenly the whole scary experience of a new country and a new life is made easier because there's someone to talk to about it.

You will say 'but that never happens'. It does. Maybe not those exact scenarios, but I have spoken to people via Facebook, and been pleased that I have, that I probably would have lost entirely if not for coming across them as a friend of a friend. And it has been a good experience. Going out of my way to contact them would have been creepy for both of us. A quick 'hi' on chat or whatever is so much less threatening, and actually very important for me at the time it happened. So don't knock it...

The danger is voyeurism. But it's less the domain of the watcher to censor what they look at and more the onus of the watched only to share only that which they can afford to share. That feels the wrong way around, I guess. Maybe that's a British feeling. Something about one should be embarrassed to watch? A difficult balance maybe, but not a pointless one. I don't mind that there is a presentation aspect of to the self on Facebook - it's a very freeing experience to have more control over your image, and it's not like people don't act parts in real life. But everyone knows that everyone is playing a part all of the time, in life and online, I don't see the issue. Once you're aware of the construct, you can see how it's put together.

Of course one needs to make sure that one uses it and not let oneself become merely the tool either of the software itself or of other users, but it does have a function. It's all about opinion. At the end of the day, as a place in and of itself it's just not that important. But it can slide into the real world in a much more tangible way than many other things. People whose blogs one reads, or who one talks to in web fora, are for the most part not people you meet in real life. It is the exception and not the rule that you might seek to actually meet them. Facebook is an addendum to a real life connection - who is Facebook friends with people they've never actually met? Nobody I know, I think. It is a way of documenting and strengthening that RL connection. It creates a common area where groups of friends can share things in virtual space when practicalities mean they can't do that in reality.

So I think it's a good thing. I have on occasion deleted myself from it - I don't necessarily want to be part of the scrutiny all of the time for one reason and another. But for the most part, I like that other people are prepared to share parts of themselves with me and are interested in parts of me. What's the problem?

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