Is Facebook controlling who your friends are?

facebook friendship social interaction social media writing letters

What Social Mediums Ought to Be

In an ideal case, a social medium would cater to the needs of the people interacting. The group would set the requirements, and the social forum would be designed to meet them. If I want some way to share pictures, I should be able to do that. If I want some way to interact freely while protecting my privacy, and to move about in social networks that are based on various criteria, I should be able to do that too.

When we interact face to face, this is generally what happens. Often, the dominant actor will control the frame of the interaction, but more or less, everyone has a say in the social standards and acceptable behavior. In some contexts, the situation dictates social guidelines, but only very loosely. This is the case in fine dining restaurants, or other specific events. But in those cases, we still get to choose where we go to eat, and thus get to define our own social standards.

The Monopolization of Socialization

But what happens if all the restaurants are fine dining places? Or worse, if they were all owned by the same person. Then that person would control your social circle and your social behavior by limiting who could eat there and how everyone had to behave. What if everything you said to another person was artificially limited to 140 characters? Would that change how you spoke, and eventually how you thought? Definitely. It's like telling people that they aren't allowed to question the government. You'd get kids growing up who think their dictator is god. Oh wait...

It is no secret that the rise of IM culture has had an impact on adolescent vocabulary and social norms of privacy. Facebook is now involved in the social lives of 400 million people, a number greater than the population of the United States. That's 400 million people who have their social interactions delineated by the Facebook interface. Of course, FB has to be flexible enough to enable people to get some use out of it, since most of us come to it expecting normal interactions, but it's pretty easy to start fiddling with the norms in subtle, barely noticeable ways.

The 'like' button is a good example. It is a pretty one-dimensional assessment of something someone else has said. It allows only a single mode of expression. You can, of course, comment and provide a more nuanced assessment, but let's say you are limiting yourself to a 'like'. Basically, it is an acknowledgement of the post, and inherently a positive acknowledgement by definition. There is not option to 'dislike' or to 'find confusing,' 'quizzical,' 'worrying,' be overjoyed at.' You can only like, or not like. This creates the implicit suggestion that, if you have an internal response to something you read, the only appropriate one to express is a positive one, unless you are going to explain/defend/insult via a comment.

Generally, I think it is a good thing to make it easier to be friendly than mean, but the basic idea is still alarming. By determining what kinds of social interactions are most convenient, Facebook can influence which ones we have more often.

Taking Your Friends With You

Also, has anyone noticed that our long distance social lives are not becoming centered around a computer? I can write a letter anywhere, and thus bring a presence of story to a friend that is impossible with a computer. It is much harder for me to send an e-mail on a road trip than a paper letter. And that effects when we trigger social thoughts as well. I can have an emotional interaction with a girl in Chicago by triggering shared memories through letter writing anywhere I want. I can only do that at a computer if I limit myself to Facebook and e-mail. And the importance of storytelling in shared experience dictates that actually writing/talking to someone is going to be a much stronger trigger than simply daydreaming about them. So now all my social storytelling episodes are limited to the computer or face to face interactions.

So, I'll be writing more letters. Something I'd like to try is to set aside an hour each day for good ol' fashioned correspondences. When people ask me what I'm doing in that hour, I can say in a heavily aristocratic British accent, 'my correspondences, dear. I'll be down for tea in a bit. Be a good chap and keep the cucumber sandwiches cool, will you?' There's also something really fun and cool about putting pen to paper (real paper) and writing out your thoughts yourself. No intermediary, nothing needed more than your thoughts and something to write on. Just you, your story, and your reader at the other end.

Facebook has made it too convenient not to use, and now, everyone is on it, so we can't just change things overnight. Kind of like...our dependence on oil, eh? Or long distance food. I'm starting to see a trend towards privatizing, commoditizing, and commercializing social interactions. And when we're all plugged into the system, breaking out will be nearly impossible. But maybe that's what it will take before we see that we must.

I'm sure you've got thoughts on this one, especially since you're reading it on a computer. Post to comments. If you include your address, I'll write the response in a letter :)


Image source: garrynight on Flickr