Facebook: Blurring Friendship Lines?

Facebook cops a lot of flack in the blogosphere. It’s an easy target, heavily influencing social interactions while giving users the opportunity for optimal self-representation among their peer group. Things rarely sound so Orwellian. It’s been vaguely linked to issues of envy, obsessiveness, narcissism, social angst, insomnia and addiction, and yet with 1.5 billion users and little evidence of a broad problem, the pandemic seems to be a fairly benign one.

There has been an undoubtable cultural shift around socialising in the past 10 years, something discernible to anyone living through the 90s and 00s, but I don’t buy the idea Facebook’s the only party to blame (or thank). It could be just as related to smartphones and the internet/media cross-pollination and the advent of Psy; cultural change is as certain as winter and as multi-faceted as a mosaic. There’s too much happening in the world to pin change down to any one thing.

The phrase “change is inevitable” is perhaps one of the most over-used platitudes on the planet (hence my shameless rewording of it above), but the vast majority of us don’t pay it more than a passing thought. When it actually happens, many of us lose our shit—most of all when it pertains to human behaviour.

The change around friend associations is an interesting one. Unlike the broader shift towards the instantaneous and constantly connected, which can be tied to public WiFi as much as Snapchat, it’s a specific symptom of Facebook. You know the drill: you can connect with anyone you want, then categorise them into friends, close friends, restricted, or acquaintances. Helps to keep things private and as close-to-life as possible while still maintaining some form of friendly connection. But is this level of Facebook sophistication always mutual? Can Facebook make passing associations seem more meaningful than they are?

I’ve worked in call-centre environments with hundreds of people (literally) who I’ve come to know by name, and many of them have become FB friendly. For a large part I wouldn’t even call them acquaintances—they’re nice folk who I worked around for a while. I may have barely interacted with them aside from working matters, or barely at all. Yet there’s this ongoing sense of them being there. Being a vague part of whatever aspect of my life I’m inclined to share.

Is this a problem? Generally, no; unless you’re a cantankerous people-hating hermit, networking with more and more individuals in a controlled manner has the potential to open up opportunity and experience in ways we’ve never had before. In those terms, I think it’s excellent. On the other hand though, it has the potential to create degrees of false intimacy.

There was a story on the radio the other day about a girl (let’s call her Lucy) who met another girl (Jane) through some mutual friends at a party, who then swapped last names to do the FB thing. They hit it off pretty well in person (as pals, cool your jets) but only interacted for a few hours. Typical situation these days. Within a week, Lucy started to share memes and articles on Jane’s wall, routinely, every several days. It wasn’t reciprocated beyond the polite acknowledgement of the ‘like’ button, and Jane began feeling uneasy. She didn’t know Lucy at all beyond having the first friendly conversation, and yet here Lucy was assuming a connection strong enough to be an ongoing presence in Jane’s consciousness.

Lucy’s behaviour may seem a product of a kooky personality, but to me she’s just representative of a shift in social etiquette (albeit a very earnest one). When Facebook is both the primary social domain and the most passive and easy form of multi-media sharing available, of course there’s a greater propensity for interaction without much foundation. It’s nearly half a generation old already, and as it becomes more intrinsic to our society—more normal to us—over time, the barriers of casual intimacy may become radically different to what they have been in the past.

I’d like to think that irrespective of human invention, human drivers remain relatively unchanged. Invention isn’t a deviation from humanity after all; it’s just an exponent and enhancement of it. All Facebook’s really doing, as far as I can tell, is changing the social throttle. It’s a tool, and as with all tools, there will be tools that abuse it.

Today’s unfocused blog was written by guest contributor, Mark Zuckerberg.