Facebook, what are we looking for?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/mar/15/facebook-passes-google-share-us is food for thought. Facebook now gets more hits than Google. I use Google about 10 times a day I reckon. I only log on to facebook about once a week to accept someone as a friend, and I only ever bother doing that because it saves getting endless reminders, just like LinkedIn. I guess I’m just not one of life’s networkers. Same at conferences, I’m the guy who gets the coffee and stands waiting for the next session to start and usually doesn’t bother talking to people. I can if I want, I usually just don’t. In between a few autistics and people with Asperger’s, there is a large band of people like me who don’t feel like socialising all the time with total strangers, even if we do actually possess the social skills. But markets don’t depend on getting 100% of people as customers. Companies can be viable even if they only cater for a small niche. And Facebook goes way beyond niche now. So just because I am never going to be one of Facebook’s top users, I can see why it is thriving.

So what is it with Facebook? Why do people want to be on there other than to avoid endless reminders to connect? They can’t really want to keep up with hundreds of people, when all the evidence is that most of us can only cope with a handful of close friends, simply because it takes time and effort to be friends. And what is the point of having so many acquaintances, whether you call them friends or not? Again, without time investment, acquaintances lose most of their networking value. It’s the same with anything, unless there is an emotional investment, there is little value. Like a wardrobe. It can have hundreds of clothes, but if you don’t associate the clothes with a particular feeling or memory, they are just a covering, and you simply don’t have enough emotional or memory budget to go beyond a few special items. Or is it just me? I don’t think so.

Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, often stresses how important emotion is for consciousness. She maintains that you cant have any real consciousness without emotion, and on that at least, I think I agree with her. With people, you meet them, you share some sort of experience and a common mutual bond is built in neural circuitry. The short term memory becomes a longer term one, but the number of links and the strength of those links depends on the amount of time and emotion depth involved in the experience. If the relationship goes straight on to the back burner and the person is filed away under casual acquaintance, they make little subsequent demand on your mind, but also have little value to you as a consequence. Labelling them as a friend and adding them on Facebook is a cheap and easy thing to do, but it can just as easily be a way of dispatching someone to the acquaintance bin without offending them, as making a declaration of future commitment.

The facts of human nature haven’t changed a lot in 100,000 years. We are tribal, and tribes that we associate with tend to be around the 100-150 size. Above that, you don’t have enough time or energy to maintain any meaningful relationship with each member. And inside that wide circle, you can maintain between 3 and 20 ‘close’ friends, though people differ greatly in how they define that circle. One person’s close friend might be another’s¬†acquaintance, mostly depending on the level of extroversion or introversion. You delude yourself if you think you can have hundreds of friends. Call them what you like, but they aren’t. They are mostly just people you know and quite like, or even just know. I have hundreds of people I know and like too, but only a small number fall into the close friend category. I don’t have time for any more than a few, neither does anyone else. Close friends take a lot of time and effort to keep as close friends.

So, again, what is it with Facebook? What are people doing there other than collecting.

I think there are several things that matter, and each of them forms a pillar that helps keep the Facebook ceiling from collapsing.

Firstly, some of it is about keeping in touch, and also falling out of touch painlessly. Some of it is trying to insulate ourselves from the pain that comes when our lives change, when we move, or change jobs, or just move on. By letting friendships evaporate ever so slowly by gradually decreasing contact, we avoid the trauma of saying goodbye. Facebook means never having to say goodbye.

But of course, for many of our friends, we actually do want to stay in touch. For the same reasons as Twitter, Facebook offers another platform that people can use to enhance relationships by becoming more intertwined with friends. I have little personal affiliation with this tendency, I don’t have a single friend whose choice of breakfast cereal holds any interest for me. But many people do want to feel closer, and by offering such trivia, manage to maintain a feeling of presence across physical distance. haring trivial experiences is one of the main fertilisers for a healthy relationship, and Facebook and Twitter both offer valuable mechanisms for this.

Secondly, some of it is about social status. For example, most people want to feel they are popular. Some of us grow out of it in middle age, and don’t care any more, but many don’t, it remains a drive throughout their lives. Popularity translates easily into social status, self affirmation, confidence. It is important for the health of our self perception, especially if a person has few other special attributes on which they can base their self image. Popularity can be a substitute for other successes, as we often see in school (e.g. cheerleaders are not often perceived as being the smartest students, but use popularity as a substitute and consequently try to talk up its value). Social status also associates with connectivity, which of course directly translates into length of contact list. Connectivity yields power, which yields status. So there is a very simple equation linking social status to the magnitude of the friend list. And of course, it isn’t just quantity, but quality. Connectivity to big names is always more valuable, and some people try hard to collect status by linking to the most powerful people they can, affirming their own positions via reflected glory.

Facebook also appeals directly to our own notions of social positioning. It’s obvious really. You can see what people are up to, who they know. You can make the little checks to make sure they aren’t getting too far ahead at work, or getting too wealthy, and enjoy the schadenfreude when they fall behind. You can make comparisions of their holidays, how cute their friends are compared to yours, where they live, how well they are ageing.

And I do think it is about avoiding the embarassment of telling people you don’t really want to bother with them by accepting them as a ‘friend’ and just not bothering to ever contact them again. We’ve rubber stamped the social niceties, with none of the real life hassle. It’s just like the people you meet on holiday, you say you really must come round some time, while hoping they never do.

And there is some value in meeting new people too, via ones you already know. I may be a rubbish networker, but I understand how it works, and it does. So that’s another big pillar.

I also reckon a lot of it is novelty. I got into chat rooms 15 years ago, and for three or four years, it was great fun, then I got bored and have never bothered since. And I’ve never ever contacted any of the people I ‘met’ or befriended there since. It may be the same with Facebook. It is fun to socialise, but eventually, the medium lets it down, you just can’t maintain a high quality relationship 100% online, and real life takes over again. It works for a while, a few years even, but in the end, it is an emotionally impoverished medium.

So what else? The tribal fun of sharing the various toys and rituals I guess. Poking people, learning new rituals, new gestures, new ontology, new language, establishing tribal structures. This is an important ingredient of human nature and Facebook cleverly indulges it by the many new toys that are invented there every week. The gifts, the games, the memberships and so on. Direct analogs of the very same things that bound caveman society together.

The potential to communicate too. Facebook substitutes for email for many people, and IM. Obvious again.

And I guess it can be used as a socially powered search engine too, leveraging social trust into recommendations in a world where trust is rapidly becoming harder to establish and easier to lose, while rapidly becoming the currency that really matters.

It is becoming a political platform now. Heavily networked social structures create a huge political platform with enormous potential power. The biggest surprise isn’t that politics is emerging on Facebook, it is that it took so long and still is embryonic. Facebook and other social networking tools have vast potential as political platforms and tools, and the vaccuum created is unsustainable. Eventually, that power will be captured and wielded, we just don’t know yet by whom and how.

I’m sure there are many other pillars holding Facebook up. It was always obvious even before the web arose, that the internet would eventually become a socialising platform much more than just a medium for entertainment, commerce and information. And now, finally, it is.

So the question I now have in my own mind, having bothered to ask myself why Facebook is such a powerful and attractive a platform, is why do I not feel like using it? I am not really so odd, but none of these many advantages really appeal to me. Thinking at length about it, I can only conclude that the richness of 21st century life offers so many other great alternatives for my time and energy and commitment, that it just doesn’t get into my priority list. I still want friends, I still want to keep in touch, but only to a point, and life is too short, and too exciting to want to spend it all with other people. What’s the quotation? Hell is other people. I guess a lot of us subscribe to that philosophy. Facebook has made its creator rich and famous, and rightly so, he has done manking a great service. But for the rest of us, who don’t want 500 friends, the guy who comes up with the opposite site that appeals to us, will do just as well. It won’t be me, but it will be someone, and it will be soon. Bet on it.

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One response to “Facebook, what are we looking for?

  1. Hum … i guess you are right.

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