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My problem with Facebook.

March 17, 2008

A commentary on communication in our times.

I have been thinking about the negative aspects of modern communication in general, and the social networking website — Facebook —  in particular.

Is social networking really enriching my life?

The internet is a wonderful resource in many ways. It has revolutionised communication with people and has greatly improved people’s access to knowledge. The world truly has shrunk, and has perhaps shrunk further with the advent of online social networking. Facebook is largely replacing Email as the preferred mode of communication. But what could be the consequences of such a transition?

The advent of near-instant communication coupled with the state of being always-connected to many people,  has undoubtedly led to an increase in the frequency of communication. This increase is seen at extreme levels with social networking websites such as Facebook. However, the two aforementioned factors of near-instant communication and being always-connected to many people, have also largely led to superficiality and a general lack of reflection of that which is being communicated. This phenomenon of ‘hyper-connectivity’, has led to the state of people being constantly in touch, yet ironically has largely not led to an increase in intimacy between the people who are in near-constant communication with one another. This is perhaps because it is difficult to have or maintain, an intimate, meaningful communication/relationship with someone if that person is not being thoughtful, does not talk about himself or herself, or does not talk about what is happening in their life.

What Hyper-connectivity has done is that it has given us easy access to near-instant gratification and less-effort communication. Communication for instant gratification means that the communication itself is largely bound to be broken down into many little chunks of communication, that involve little personal effort. And little personal effort, more often than not, translates into communication lacking depth and/or reflection. But surely, some of us sometimes care about meaningful, deeper conversation and communication and are willing to make an effort to do so — so why is this sort of communication rare even between such people? This could be attributed to the pressures of modern life in which there is little time and mind-space to engage in such things. Having mind-space, after all, is crucial for more thoughtful, more intimate, more meaningful communication, given of course that one is the type who prefers this sort of thing over mundane or superficial communication. Unfortunately a hyper-connected world added to an already stressful modern life is not really conducive to mind-space. Also, near-instant communication often leads to the desire for instant replies, instant gratification. How quickly one could ‘demand’ a reply depends largely on which mode of communication is being used: each mode has inadvertently and implicitly, an ‘acceptable’ time-frame for replying. For example, a person sending a mobile text message will often desire a reply in a matter of minutes. A person sending an email might desire a reply in a day, or a perhaps in a few days at the latest. Someone who wants to chat online would generally desire near-instant replies.But the problem is that the person who has to reply back, presuming that he is accessible still may not have the time or the mind-space, or may simply not be in the mood to reply with a thoughtful message within the ‘acceptable’ time-frame. Even so, this person is likely to feel the pressure of replying within this time-frame. Why? Because of the feeling of insecurity that their friendship/acquaintance with the sender could be compromised on account of annoyance or offense or any sense of rejection felt by the sender.

With the internet in general, and more so with Facebook in particular, there is this tendency to over-communicate in less than substantial ways. This is partly because of the multitudinous modes of communication available within Facebook itself, from sending a public or private message to sending a virtual beer to ‘bitch-slapping’ someone and much more. It is easy to get lost in this sort of entertainment. The other reasons for over-communication are not exclusive to Facebook: loneliness, boredom, and the feeling of insecurity of losing touch with the people one wants to be in touch with or being forgotten. Whether this communication ends up being at a shallow or deeper level will depend on personality types as well as the nature and strength of the bond shared, and the degree of mutuality.

I suppose that the largely superficial nature of communication via social networking, could work well for the kind of person who is largely emotionally detached from their world; for such a person, a one-to-one intimacy with friends is likely to be of little or no importance in their life. It could work for people who use Facebook as a supplementary rather than primary tool for communicating with friends: unfortunately this is rare because, communication via Facebook is largely lesser effort than email or phone; hence more often than not, it ends up becoming the primary mode of communication. It could work for people whose primary concern with Facebook is to kill boredom. It could work for those people who hope to get in touch with long-lost people. It could work for those people who are lonely, since facebook provides more than adequate noise and buzz, even if a lot of it  is a bit empty. You could also share your photos, videos and scribblings and see what others have shared, which is in my opinion one of the most positive things about Facebook. It could work for those people who are willing to sacrifice a lot of time in the hope that having a network that consists substantially of near-unknown people could come in handy one day. Perhaps in rare instances, this may help to enchance their professional prospects.

Meeting face-to-face is to my mind still the best, most complete form of communication. Of course this is not always possible since given the nature of modern life, physical distances are inevitable between oneself and the people that one cares about. The next best options are email and phone. If used in the right way, a meaningful, deeper communication, is quite possible with them.


What bothers me about Facebook in particular?

1. Serious privacy concerns: One of the clauses of Facebook’s Privacy Policy as stated on their website is, ‘We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services, Facebook Platform developers and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile. Where such information is used, we generally allow you to specify in your privacy settings that you do not want this to be done or to take other actions that limit the connection of this information to your profile (e.g., removing photo tag links).

Third party applications i.e. software programs not developed by Facebook available to users of Facebook, have access to almost all user information and Facebook does not screen or approve Platform Developers and cannot control how such Platform Developers use any personal information. Another scary clause in the Terms of Use which pertains to any personal information, photos, videos, notes etc uploaded by a user, is:

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

These clauses are scary enough. I would strongly urge Facebook users or those who would like to join to study the entire Privacy Policy and Terms of Use which are available on the website.

2. I have had little no communication with a large proportion of people and the near-strangers in my ‘friends list’. What’s the point of them being on my Facebook if I am unlikely to ever be in touch with them? And yet they are privy to details of my life and I am to theirs. This is strange and annoying, unless one is into voyeuristic pleasures. Surely it would be better to email my friends directly or Skype them.

3. It is mind-numbingly addictive and a colossal waste of time.

4. Sending messages which can be viewed publicly is termed as writing on someone’s ‘wall’ in Facebook. I find the concept of writing on someone’s‘wall a little disturbing because I find it impersonal. a) Is the person writing on someone’s wall because he/she also wants the message to be seen by other people? In which case there is either some exhibitionism going on here — which may or may not be advantageous to both parties — or, the message is meant to be viewed by a group of people — for instance a group of friends. When the latter instance of chatting among members of a group is at play, this could in theory strengthen the group bond; on the other hand, group chatting could lead to the the build-up of negative group dynamics, and this could weaken the group bond. b) Is there an apprehension in the sender’s mind, that the recipient or someone else, might misunderstand their intentions if the message were private? I would find it rather sad if someone were sending me a public message just for that reason. c) Is it the case that the recipient or perhaps the message itself, is just not important enough to the sender so that it is intended only for the recipient’s eyes? d) Could it also be sometimes that wall writing is somewhat detached from the self, and that not having a personal dimension in one’s writing is more conducive to self preservation — as in give less of oneself, get stressed less? It is likely that at least one of the aforementioned factors would be operating with respect to wall writing. It appears to be the case that wall communication is all about communication of a hidden kind.

The answer to the question I asked myself at the beginning of this essay for me is clear: Facebook is not enriching my life.


From → articles

  1. Leanne permalink

    Alex Turner, perhaps the greatest lyricist of all time, has a line in one of his songs “The point’s that there’s no romance around there”, which is like the tag line to modern life. There can be no romantic epic set in today’s world; what would the plot mechanism be? The internet breaking down or losing your mobile phone? All modern communicative technology has reduced the quality of relationships, and has severed any sense of mystery and intrigue to the world in general. Everything is possible but little is exciting anymore; everything is demeaned. But people are blind to it, most people. If anything, serious or meaningful communication is ultimately unfashionable & avoided. You’ve missed the most ‘important’ function of the wall – the wall is often about wanting to send a message to a person in an open, non-threatening way, i.e. a person who don’t know that well so it may seem inappropriate – but more often it’s nothing about messaging that person, wall activity is simply a bar that measures your ‘popularity’. The more messages on your wall, the more popular you are, therefore writing on someone’s wall is almost a favour, almost a gift. And one expected in return. It’s odd that the underlying motivation is, ultimately, connection of sorts… But it’s a connection with you and the world, rather than you and an individual – it’s a portrayal, its purpose to parade you as popular, liked, friendly, funny etc.
    And so people are connected by air, literally, to lots and lots of people, but hardly connected to any in the way that matters.
    Conversely, it may make the relationships that matter, if the individual is ever able to identify it, stand out. The communication that matters, mattered, may serve as the excruciating and eternal reminder of what is lost.

  2. vinayakkohli permalink

    Thank you for your very well written comment. I agree with what you say. However, I think I did roughly cover in a more general setting, the missing point you mention about Wall writing –

    (taken from article)
    ‘Is there an apprehension in the sender’s mind that the recipient or someone else might misunderstand their intentions if the message were private?’

    ‘Is the person writing on someone’s ‘wall’ because he/she also wants the message to be seen by other people? In which case there is some exhibitionism going on here, which may or may not be advantageous to both parties’

    I perhaps should have used a more moderate term here than ‘exhibitionism’.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Some insightful thoughts, Leanne – but if you see no potential for romance on teh interweb, you clearly didn’t have a sufficiently geeky adolescence.
    Seriously, though, no-one complains that Jane Austen’s heroines heartfelt letters took all the romance out of the stories; likewise, email, even online chat, have brought together any number of people in what they certainly consider romantic relationships.
    If you want epic romance, lovers dying on storm-tossed seas for one another, well, maybe the tame modern world doesn’t provide enough of that (although if we expand our definition beyond Euro-America, I’m not sure) – but then, is that the only scale on which romance can live? I think a good part of the joy in romance exists in the minutiae, and those haven’t gone anywhere.
    (And I like Alex Turner, but the greatest lyricist of all time? Can I put in a word for the likes of Leonard Cohen, Ani DiFranco, John Darnielle, even Ben Gibbard or Conor Oberst?)
    All that said, I liked your point about the performative aspects of writing on walls. I hate doing it for exactly that reason!

    Vinny – we spoke about this. You know my feelings -medium is not necessarily message – but I can agree with you on a lot of it nonetheless. And for the record, writing a message on your page is not in this instance a gift, although if you’d like to see it as such, you’re welcome :)

  4. fitsofreason permalink

    “….it is difficult to have or maintain an intimate, meaningful communication/relationship with someone if that person is not being thoughtful, does not talk about himself or herself, or does not talk about what is happening in their life….” – very well put… something that has been bothering me quite a lot lately… although i couldn’t quite articulate it as well. There is this void in personal relationships these days – even in ones that are not so superficial as those maintained through social networking sites , where you might me meeting the person concerned quite a lot…but fail to connect. So maybe “…this tendency to over-communicate in less than substantial ways….” is something that is not just about Facebook / Internet / Cell phones but got more to do with the way people have started viewing relationships in general. I might be wrong but my observation has been that people are willing to settle for a less than perfect connection…the number of people they socialize with being more important than the quality of the interaction…. in a bid to attain popularity or maybe due to their inherent insecurities. Facebook and social networking sites are just accentuating this tendency by making it the “in” thing to do… maybe the root cause lies elsewhere.

  5. Vinayak Kohli permalink

    The following idea from the article is central in my opinion-

    ‘What Hyper-connectivity has done is that it has given us easy access to near-instant gratification. Thus when communication has become largely a tool for receiving instant gratification, it also largely bound to be broken down into many little chunks of communication that take little personal effort.’

    I think the scale of effects we observe in interpersonal relationships as well as the observation that certain facets of human nature are accentuated, are a consequence of the above. What I am trying to get at is that if something like T.V., or cellphones, or airplanes for that matter, had been available ‘back then’, eventually many people would have gotten used to this form of instant gratification and this would have eventually led to a kind of cultural shift/ change in psychology for many.
    In other words, it seems that what we are seeing is here to stay because it is a kind of natural ‘evolution’ with respect to a change in the environment and stuff like superficiality can now be seen at a larger scale as well as at a heightened level.

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