Many adults discount social networking websites as a meaningless distraction that enfeebles our young minds. This is a predictable and cautionary response, but it neglects to explain why 300 million users worldwide find the need to log onto Facebook. Like it or not, this is a phenomenon that is here to stay in some form or another, and there may be more to the increasing digitization of our social lives than meets the eye.
The Advent of the News Feed
On September 5, 2006, Facebook introduced a change that nearly ended in digital warfare.
In an effort to streamline users’ ability to access information on their friends’ pages, Mark Zuckerberg, C.E.O. and founder, rocked the social networking community with the advent of the News Feed. Instead of having to bounce around to check the status updates, relationship news, or photo postings of specific friends, a single page would actively broadcast any changes that a user made. Everyone’s digital lives were suddenly subject to minute-by-minute coverage, and, understandably, the initial reaction was complete panic.
Just 24 hours later, the largest anti-News Feed group had already reached 284,000 members. Concerns about privacy were rampant, and many outspoken users compared Facebook to an aspiring version of Big Brother. In response to the outcry, Zuckerberg added a privacy feature to the News Feed, but other than that, he hedged his bets that the tide of public opinion would turn. He was right. Within a few weeks the protest groups died out. People got used to the News Feed, and even started liking it.
The earlier fears about full disclosure on the News Feed—the possibility of drunken photos or embarrassing break-up rumors popping up for all to see—turned out to be exactly what everyone wanted. Moreover, even the harmless details became oddly alluring. We got used to knowing what our friends thought of lunch that day—Sarah is going to puke after eating that heinous dining hall pizza—or when they changed their favorite bands—Jason joined the group “I would totally eat Thom Yorke’s fingernail clippings.” The information had always been there, but now we could access it effortlessly and immediately.
Ambient Awareness: The New Digital Intimacy
Social scientists have a name for this type of constant online contact. It’s called “ambient awareness,” and it very accurately replicates the experience of being physically near someone. But instead of using corporeal clues like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to pick up on someone’s mood, we use the little pieces of digital information to assemble a larger picture of what our friends’ lives are like. This is especially true of status updates. On their own, they can be insignificant, even banal and boring. But taken together, over time, the individual fragments coalesce into a complicated portrait of our friends and family, much like the tiny dots of a pointillist painting.
In a world increasingly characterized by emotional isolation and disconnectedness, the News Feed is a blessing in disguise. As college students, we are physically separated from so much of what is important to us. We are far away from home, our high school friends are spread across the country, and our family members are busy with their own lives. The News Feed, it seems, affords us an opportunity to connect with them on a level that would otherwise be impossible. It allows us to pick up on the subtle rhythms of their everyday lives and tune in to the many details of their existence that would never be fully communicated through a phone call or an email.
Online Identity: Becoming Your Own P.R. Manager
Part of the initial appeal of social networking is the opportunity it provides users to assert power over their self-image. In everyday life, projecting an identity can be a difficult, anxiety-ridden endeavor. Facebook allows us to broadcast a favorable image of ourselves all from the comfort and privacy of our desk chairs, offering enough control to keep us content, but not so much as to let us grow complacent or lose interest. Indeed, our attitude towards our online identity is simultaneously vigilant and carefree. We curate our online personalities to our liking, ensuring that our virtual selves aren’t defined by others, but we’ve learned to accept what we know we can’t control. Nonetheless, Facebook’s popularity hinges on our continual vigilance and understanding that our online reputation is secure only if we tend to it. Becoming our own PR manager, we untag compromising or unflattering photographs, make sure to reciprocate wall posts in a timely manner (but not too timely—no one wants to seem creepy), and make the required effort of wishing everyone a happy birthday. Abandoning Facebook can result in the distortion of the identity we’ve so carefully cultivated, so we stay online and stay alert, perpetually reminding ourselves of what others have said and can see.
Small Town Living in the Urban World
Psychologists and sociologists have long posed the question of how humans might adapt to the relative obscurity of urban existence. Thoreau once said, “City life is millions of people being lonesome together.” In this context, social networking can be seen as a means to combat the anonymity and isolation inherent in urban living. Facebook in particular is a diffuse matrix that, remarkably, provides its users with the advantages of village-like connectedness often lost in an urban setting. When you think about it, scrolling through the News Feed is a lot like walking down the Main Street of a small community—think “Gilmore Girls” style. We see what everyone is doing, and, if we want, we can stop to say hello, but we also have the freedom to keep moving with our own lives. The small town element does have a catch, however. While social networks afford the city dweller a way to connect more intimately than he might through his own devices, the thought of being constantly “followed” or observed can seem suffocating, much like life in a small town, where every one knows your business whether you like it or not.
The Uncertain Future of Facebook
With our ever-increasing number of “friends,” photos, events, and groups, we have to wonder when the pendulum may shift, when we’ll realize we don’t have as much control over our online identity as we hoped, and that maybe anonymity wasn’t so bad after all. We have to wonder if we’ll ever grow tired of self-broadcasting, realizing that our virtual personas are but gilded semblances of ourselves. And, ultimately, we have to wonder what will replace Facebook when it finally runs out of steam. We’ve known networking sites like Friendster and MySpace long enough to understand that they’re short-lived and transient things—vaunted and populated, then abandoned like gold-rush towns. Facebook won’t last forever, and its creators are wary of this; they know their history. But we’ll hang tight in the interim, foregoing a degree of privacy in an effort to stay connected. Eventually, we may decide to stop logging on, we may even de-activate our accounts, but our information will remain. And in time, it may be worth a lot, maybe nothing at all. O