Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Memoirs of a Facebooking Man

[with all due apology to Siegfried Sassoon]

For quite some time I held aloof from Facebook, considering it the domain of those who couldn't live without reading updates on what their friends were eating for lunch or what music was playing on distant people's iPods, but in the end I succumbed.  There were people I wanted to keep in touch with who were on, and in the end it proved to be a good way to provide distant friends and family with the sort of "here's a cute kid picture from today" or "listen to what the girls said" kind of news which doesn't fit at all within our editorial mandate for the blog and seems to inconsequential to actively mail to people.  Somehow the fact that one can, in a few moments, provide some photo or anecdote to everyone of one's acquaintance, but leave them to see it only if they look for it, provides a similar experience to being in more regular personal contact.  One knows what people are up to and it allows a sort of inconsequential chit-chat which a relationship maintained over intentional communications such as phone calls and emails generally lacks and yet which frequent person contact usually includes.

In this sense, I've found Facebook surprisingly useful, and it's allowed me to remain far more connected with distant friends and family than would otherwise be the case.

And yet, it doesn't take long on Facebook to realize that "social networking" lacks one of the most basic elements which allows social interaction to be harmonious. On Facebook, links and status updates posted to one's wall are visible to everyone in one's network.  Which, of course, runs counter to the most basic rule of having more than two friends in the world: you don't talk about everything with everyone. 

This is a problem that plagues more than just the frat boy who pauses to consider whether the "Here's me and the guys when were were so drunk we couldn't find either our pants or the sorority house" would offend his fiance's mother.  Unless you have somehow managed to attain a network of friends and family who are all in near harmony in regards to their beliefs and opinions, you must either stick to the most bland of "Stopped to have lunch at a great deli.  Look at this pastrami sandwich!" updates which will offend no one other than your college friend who is now a militant vegetarian and animal rights activist, or else at times post things which offend others. 

For instance, because I tend not to discuss religious or political issues at work except with people I know and trust very well, I've made it an absolute rule never to be connected with any work acquaintances on Facebook.  Yet even so, one is likely to read the political jokes Cousin Melchior thinks amusing about how all people in your political party suffer from sexual dysfunction, and which he couldn't help sharing because surely none of his friends would think otherwise, view the video of a cat being torn apart by mad beavers which your old college roommate thought was hilarious, and see the article which Aunt Mildred believes everyone should read on the importance of sterilization in a crowded world.

None of these people, in all likelihood, would have brought these topics up with you individually, or perhaps even at a social gathering in which you were present. They're think of "their friends", whoever that group of people is whom they are most used to addressing such things to. And yet, in the process, they send these things out to an array of other friends and relations whose reactions are likely to be very much other than what they intend.

This kind of accidental exposure is the sort of thing which makes one feel like being more ideologically and culturally selective about whom one is acquainted with. The old college friend whom it's interesting to catch up with, or the cousin's new husband who was so hilarious at last Thanksgiving, suddenly becomes someone you'll feel much more ill disposed towards next time you meet him (if you won't avoid him entirely) when you find out that he holds your deeply held religious, moral or political beliefs in contempt -- or merely that he has an offensive sense of humor. And while there's a smug satisfaction to thinking, "Well, at least I know now what he's really like." Acquiring the knowledge necessary to like people less is not necessarily a desirable thing. In many cases, it may be better not to know about the elements of one's friends' lives which one would find dislike-able.

The unfiltered nature of social networking online quickly makes on realize how much one filters social interactions in real life, and how much social cohesion relies on not sharing everything you're thinking with everyone you know.


Kiwi Nomad said...

I got quite hacked off with FB some months back, when I realised they had made some things public by default that I had thought were private. Plus 17 year olds that some other teacher taught years back were wanting to be 'friends'. Found out how to get completely out of FB. But missed one thing- playing lexulous with a friend in the UK- could find no other platform for it. Joined again with a brand spanking new gmail address nobody had. Let just a few people know- those I knew quite well but don't see often- those who had moaned loudest about me going. Set my privacy to the highest and never tag/allow any photos to be tagged... With my alias, I am happy so far, and I can keep playing lexulous as I wish!

Foxfier said...

Sometimes I wonder what I missed, growing up in a setting where I expect everything that's important to be insulted. Generally by folks who will have kittens if you went a third so far.

Jenny said...

Agreed. Agreed.

My undergraduate is in music which is left liberal headquarters. I know way more about the political beliefs of my college friends than I ever cared to know. Obviously no sane/non-evil person would ever disagree with them. Right? So they feel free to spew bile.

Also I have observed that my lefty friends are much more likely to post a political screed than my righty friends. I try to check myself for observational bias, but I think this is true for my set of friends. I do wonder why that is.

Donna - What's Past is Prologue said...

Just FYI, Facebook allows you to put your friends on different "Lists" so you can target your postings, like post the video that will offend mom to the frat boys only and the cutie pics of the kids to family only or your hobby stuff to fellow hobbyists only. It can be useful when you don't want to bore everyone with something and/or limit what you share with whom.

Anonymous said...

I use fb differently than most people, the main difference being my 2-year rule: If we haven't met in real life in the past two years, I won't friend you on fb. I've denied almost every friend request from old high school and college classmates for that reason, without regrets. I use fb to communicate with people I'm friends with *today*. As such, after two years on fb I have only 84 fb friends, and I'm totally OK with that.

Nonetheless, 84 is a big group and I find that I censor myself a lot, since one of my fb friends is a 14 yo girl (the daughter of my best friend), and several are conservative Christians who would probably be offended by some of my favorite jokes.

So there it is: fb has its uses, but it's not all that.


Foxfier said...

I've had lefty friends observe that leftward folks are more likely to talk about politics in an abrasive way than rightward. They tend to see it as meaning either there are more leftward folks, or the rightward folks are hiding something.

Most rightward folks I know find it impolite to bring up politics in mixed company, because it WILL start fights.

It's slowly changing-- rather unfortunately, since that means basically just that rightward folks aren't willing to just lay down/hold their peace/let things pass, rather than that the leftward folks are being more conscious of the dignity of the other side, or less quick to assume insanity/stupidity/evil as the only reason for disagreeing.

Darwin said...


Can you actually set your posts to be visible to only certain groups? I've only been able to figure out how to view by groups (say, view only things that my "family and old friends" group have posted) but I have not been able to find a way make one of my posts visible to only one group.

Foxfier said...

Click the little lock-icon with an upside down triangle, next to the "share" button; using "customize" you can even limit it to specific people. You start typing the name of the person or group and a list of options will drop down.

Darwin said...

Ooooh. I see. Nifty.

So now I just need to get all friends and family to remove me from their groups named "liberal" and "pro-choice" and start using this feature... ;-)

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I set up my settings on Facebook so that friends of friends cannot see my comments.

At least I hope so. Facebook keeps changing its rules without notice.

Foxfier said...

To be fair, they haven't changed their rules-- give new options, yes, and there was the hitch with other sites being able to customize without being given express permission.

I'm slamming my head about the latest "breach" that's in the news, though-- News Flash! When you click 'do you want to allow this program to see your data and that of your friends,' it can SEE YOUR DATA AND THAT OF YOUR FRIENDS!

(that's why there's an option to not share your data with third party programs)

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

Diaspora Social Network intends to deal with the objections you mention with Facebook.