[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.