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How Facebook Ruined Social Relationships

When I was in the last semester of my high school career Xanga was in its dying days and MySpace had long since become little more than the Mos Eisley of the internet. This placed Facebook in the coveted position of hottest social networking commodity.  It was a huge fad amongst the graduating class, an elite status symbol because you had to have a college e-mail address with a school already listed on Facebook to even sign up for an account.  Those with accounts would sneer “Oh, you’re not on Facebook yet?” to those of us that hadn’t signed up yet.

Now, six years after its founding and five years after I was introduced to the site, I have to say that I cannot help but feel that Facebook has utterly and completely ruined social relationships.

The Good

Like most things, I’m not 100% committed to my belief that Facebook is an evil that needs to be purged.  It provided (and perhaps still provides) beneficial social networking options to a large group of people.  The ability to quickly find friends, post on their wall or send a private message cannot be understated.  Not everybody wants to sit online with an IM program (which by this point, seem to be fading into obscurity in favor of texting) or sift through e-mail hourly to stay in contact.

For the original market of college students (once Facebook expanded beyond Harvard), the service was perfect.  Keep in touch with friends from afar without having to keep a catalogue of e-mail addresses and phone numbers immediately on-hand.  It was the college student’s dream. I’ll be the first to admit that I managed to keep in contact with people toward whom I might not have normally devoted the effort.

All-in-all, Facebook—at some point—definitely provided positive benefits to the subscribers.  It may still do so.

Where It Went Wrong

Clearly, I have a few gripes about Facebook.

To begin with, I never really agreed with Facebook’s expansion to a wider social network.  I understand the reasons: a larger audience means more ad revenue, and thus more ability to expand the service with useful features.  Nonetheless, the expansion to high school students—and then to anybody—always felt a bit ridiculous.  MySpace’s allure (and downfall) is that it drew everybody to it, and the general lack of restrictions generally meant that you were dealing with both real friends and the dregs of the internet. Keeping Facebook limited to those with a valid college e-mail was a kind of quality control, ensuring that the Greedos of the world didn’t bring down the quality of content.

But beyond the idea of letting “just anybody in”—as though Facebook were some prestigious country club—there were other repercussions: a shift toward a general audience meant a shift in what features were tuned for what.  As I pointed out, Facebook began as a great, minimalist way to keep in contact.  It wasn’t about how great your profile looked, but just that you had it and could stay in contact. As the market to which Facebook catered expanded, so did the features list.  Eventually it ended up where we now find ourselves, at a point where people are obsessively logging on to play Farmville (that’s still a popular thing, right?) and check the latest status updates while ensuring to post hundreds of useless links and videos.

The introduction of the Facebook status was, arguably, the point where Facebook was less about staying in contact and more about mimicking features of MySpace while avoiding all the pitfalls.  With the Xanga trend already dead and blogs becoming more limited to serious bloggers (and not whiny teens) we still needed a way to share with our friends what was going on.  What better way than forcing users to do so in short, character-limited sentences?

Sure, this is only a short recap of some of the history of Facebook and the various implemented features, but what features aren’t so important as the impact they have had.

The Social Impact

Overall I find only one conclusion I can logically draw: Facebook has fundamentally altered the way that we, as people, interact socially.  To this I doubt any sane person would object.  Where I go one step further is to say that this impact is mostly negative.

One of the most fundamental features of the new Facebook is the status/feed around which the website now revolves.

You might ask yourself why this is so bad.  The question I have is, how often do you flip to your feed and find yourself not giving a damn what the people who show up are up to.  And it’s not because of those people; it’s because of what they post.  The Facebook “status” as a method of sharing has been bastardized to the point of being nearly meaningless.

The status is the outlet for passive aggression, outright aggression, emotional catharsis and inane updates.  For every entry in my feed that presents me with interesting and relevant information about someone in my network, I am inundated with at least five updates that inspire me to invent time travel to save myself every second I have spent and will ever spend reading those updates.  I’m sorry that your boyfriend is a jerk, but quoting sappy lines from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy on your wall makes you look pathetic.  Quoting Dashboard Confessional is equality pathetic.  Nobody cares that Chris Carrabba’s lyrics speak to you. There, I said it.

In a real-life context, the uselessness of the information provided in most status updates would absolutely offend me, as the person sharing that information must assume that my time is worthy of quoting hackneyed song lyrics and sitting around listening to your doe-eyed stories of just-barely-post-adolescent heartbreak.

To be fair, we’ve all put song lyrics in our status at one point, I just think that most (sane) people regret it and try to avoid it later.  It’s just exceptionally bad with certain repeat offenders. I have had to block numerous people from my feed for becoming what I refer to as a “fortune cookie.”

Facebook’s negative impact doesn’t stop with the status update.  I’m hoping I’m not alone, but I absolutely dread my birthday because of Facebook.  First, because I’m too lazy to tell them to stop e-mailing me, my e-mail inbox gets a deluge of notes that I’ve had a post on my wall.  But the bigger of the issues is the compulsion I feel to read my wall to see what lost acquaintance pops out of the woodworks to send me hardly-sincere birthday wishes.  Oh, hi Cooper, we haven’t talked in two years, but thanks for looking at a sidebar on your homepage and noting that it’s my birthday.

It’s this lack of sincerity embodied by Facebook birthdays that is indicative of the problems of Facebook as a whole.  While I understand that social conventions allow for a Facebook wall post to replace a phone call, how much harder is it to take the time to call me and wish me a happy birthday?  Even if I’m not there, you can leave a voicemail.  How many of us wouldn’t mind waking up to 30 voicemails from good friends deciding to wish you a happy birthday.  I’d certainly be more willing to spend 30 minutes sifting through my voicemail than 30 seconds clearing out my inbox and trying to see if anybody that matters has written something on my wall recently.

This lack of willingness to use personal means of contact isn’t limited to birthdays.  Just recently I had a friend on the phone and he happened to ask if I was going to his house party.  The tone in his voice indicated I should have already known about this, though I honestly was clueless to which party he referred.  Then he revealed he’d shared a Facebook invite.  I, of course, hadn’t heard about the party because I don’t compulsively check my Facebook invites anymore.  Again, a quick text or call in advance would have informed me and been significantly more personal.

As each passing day distances me just a little further from my college days, I’ve found that the way I view social relationships has changed disproportionately quickly.  In college, I was checking my event invites frequently.  Hey, party this weekend?  You bet I’m going to RSVP for that.  Sure, the guy hosting the party just invited his entire friends list (and I barely knew him), but it was college and that was the kind of passing acquaintance that was acceptable.  As an emerging member of society-at-large, I’m beginning to wonder at the fact that I still get event invites from people with whom I haven’t spoken since graduation. Yes, we can save the time by sending out the invite, but when you get an event invite that’s been sent to anywhere from 40 to 500 people, do you really feel that the person hosting the event even cares (or would notice) if you’re there? Why am I going to bother showing up for your party if it’s clear you don’t care enough about me being there to pick up the phone?

What This Really Means for Social Networking (Both Online and Off)

For anybody who has played The Sims, you’ll probably know that maintaining friendships was absolutely necessary for your sim’s happiness, yet simultaneously incredibly difficult to maintain those relationships.  As you had a lot of friends, you had to create a ridiculously rigid routine through which you maintained those relationships with visits to the house or phone calls.  It just wasn’t easy.  And this is a game that is supposed to be fun.

As aired my grievances with Facebook, you may have noticed a trend emerging: all of those things are just plain easy.  Everything Facebook does is designed to easily keep in contact and show interest in other peoples’ lives.  The problem with social relationships is that they are necessarily difficult.  They are about give-and-take, and the best relationships will require effort from both parties.  That’s the point, because nobody wants to invest himself in a relationship to which the other person contributes nothing.

It just isn’t possible, then, to truly maintain a strong relationship with only Facebook.  And yet, it is increasingly becoming the surrogate to other methods of interpersonal contact.  Certainly, those close friends of ours we will always call or e-mail or stop and visit.  But for the more casual acquaintances, you simply cannot put in the effort required to maintain a meaningful relationship with Facebook.  You may question this assertion, but think hard.  How close are any of us with the friends on whose wall we occasionally post?  How many token gestures, like “we have to hang out this weekend” do we all throw out to simulate effort where there truly is none.  The plans may fall through, but at least we made the (hollow) gesture of trying to plan something.

Romantic relationships are uniquely impacted by Facebook as well.  For the majority of college I was in a long-term relationship in which Facebook played a role.  My biggest regret is that I ever allowed that to happen.  Whether or not your significant other is in your profile picture should not matter, nor should the “relationship status” part of your information have any impact on your relationship.  Ever. Yet, the idea of being in a relationship on Facebook has spawned the phrase “Facebook Official” as some meaningful moniker for relationships, almost as if it is more meaningful to be listed in a relationship in your profile than to have taken the step to acknowledge that you are in a monogamous relationship in person.

Not to mention the way that people use Facebook as some precursor to romantic relationships.  I’ll admit, grudgingly, that I’ve Facebook stalked, but it is a bit beyond creepy when put into context.  As we get to know a person, we may comb the profile for useful details about interests as a way to measure compatibility and to spark conversation.  In fact, I’ve used Facebook chat as a way to get in contact that has led to a relationship.  None of this seems to bother our collective conscience as an invasion of privacy.

I know the counter-point here is that you can moderate who sees what information and you can choose not to display certain interests.  But how is that really any different than a real-life relationship.  If I began dating a woman, only to find out that she had been following me around for some time to learn what I’m interested in, I’d be mortified.  I’d probably also file for a restraining order.  Yet in the relative lawlessness of the internet, Facebook Stalking is almost a pre-requisite to dating.

To recap (again): the most disturbing part of Facebook isn’t that it tries to make social networking easy, but that the expectations for easy relationships translate into expectations in the real world.

And Yet…

The problem is that many of the people reading this post may, in fact, have come from my Facebook.  The fact is that using the integrated feed update would be to pass up a great opportunity for self-promotion.  But more than that, I have an active Facebook account that I do check semi-frequently.  I even post on friends’ walls.

This is why I find myself in a quandary, as I hate the impact Facebook has had and yet cannot escape the fact that it is so inextricably integrated into our collective social consciousness.  Were I to deactivate my Facebook, I’d find myself in a self-imposed social isolation similar to cancelling my phone service. Online social networking has become intrinsic to our society, and for all the problems Facebook provides, even I cannot just quit.

For the longest time, I have actually been a proponent of the ability for the internet to provide meaningful social interaction.  I love instant messaging because it provides the ability to multi-task and still have meaningful conversations.  It is a happy medium between e-mail and personal interaction, requiring effort and thought to participate, but without the lengthy reply times of e-mail.

Which is why I wonder at the reaction the masses had to the invention of the telephone.  In a time when stopping by your neighbor’s house or going to a local pub or common house was the preferred method of social interaction, I can only imagine how vehemently some onlookers must have spoken out against the impersonality of the telephone.  “You cannot see them!” they might have cried, enraged that the telephone might one day replace interpersonal relationships.  Yet, today the telephone is, beyond visiting a friend, widely considered to be a personal gesture.

Similarly, I may be jumping the gun.  With Facebook just over six years old, its long-term impact has yet to be seen.  Social networking sites rise and fall relatively quickly, and perhaps Facebook will find itself usurped by a new social networking trend. I can only hope it is not Chat Roulette.

Even if it does find relative permanence, Facebook may not be beyond redemption.  As social networking increases in popularity, to cut oneself off would be unwise.  Facebook can be saved by a collective resolution to ensure that we don’t let it replace our personal interactions, and that we all still put in effort to maintain relationships.

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