A Bunch Of Social Issues Related To Facebook And Other Social Networking Sites
(Note: This article was originally posted in the early 2010's and feels a bit dated these days, because of its focus on Facebook. At the time Facebook was the social network everyone was obsessed with. These days it still has a good number of users, but it's not as big as it was. However, if you can look past the Facebook-centric stuff, a lot of the broader concepts are still relevant today.)
In this article I'll discuss an assortment of social issues that come up due to using social networking sites. For most people reading that means Facebook, but many of the concepts apply to similar sites and apps as well. For some of the issues I bring up, I just want to mention them more than anything. I don't have any neat answers to solve them.
How do some people have so many Facebook friends?!?
Facebook displays how many contacts you have, and I think it's only human for people to be at least a little self-conscious about their friend count. What can really get someone's insecurities going is when they see a profile where the person has like 847 friends. But even more than setting off feelings of inferiority, it can make you curious. How on Earth can someone actually know that many people? The consensus is that people with hundreds and hundreds of friends aren't actually in close relationships with most of them. "Friend" on Facebook really just means "Someone you know and could see yourself wanting to keep up with in the future." Here are some ways people can end up with high friend counts:
- Some people with a lot of Facebook friends are more sociable than average, and have just made a lot of connections over the years. However, I've known people who weren't especially social who up increased their friends list through the other reasons I list below.
- Some people will friend anyone they've ever talked to for more than five minutes. It's not necessarily that they're doing it just to amass a big friend count either. They may have the attitude that if they know someone, even barely, they may as well be connected to them online. They never know if it'll be useful to be in touch with them or not.
- People who have been on the site longer have had more time to accumulate 'friends'.
- If someone's been involved in a lot of activities where they can meet many people, that will bump up their friends count. Someone who's been to high school, college, and grad school could have added every passing acquaintance they've ever met there. Then, if they've been involved with lots of teams, clubs, short-term jobs, and traveling over the years, each of those adds a bunch of people to their tally.
- If someone has something going for them that tends to make people want to know them, that'll increase their friend count. A big example is if a woman is attractive she may end up with a ton of contacts, simply because 90% of the guys she meets will send her a friend request.
- Some people really do try to pump up their friend count for its own sake. They'll add every random person they chat to at a party, or even send out lots of friend requests to people they don't know, like their friend's friends.
- Someone may be motivated to accumulate a bunch of friends for self-promotional reasons, like a musician who is constantly sending out invites about his gigs to everyone he knows.
Overall I don't think there's a gigantic connection between how many 'friends' someone has on Facebook and how busy or fulfilling their social life is in the real world. There are people with 80 friends who have more satisfying social lives than someone who has 750.
Having to manage the impression you create of yourself online
There's two main ways people have to do this. One is when they're managing their impression for professional purposes, because they're job networking, or their co-workers are Facebook contacts. Here the idea is mainly not to show anything about yourself that's too controversial. It's one thing if someone is consciously choosing to present a certain image to try to further their career. It can be harder when it's forced upon you, like if you've added your boss on Facebook, and now you have to second guess everything you post and watch that your friends don't make any incriminating comments on your feed or photos.
Secondly, people can feel a general tug to portray and sell themselves a certain way through their profile. The one I've heard the most is that some people seem to go out of their way to post lots of party and bar photos of themselves, to create the impression that they have a busy, crazy social life. Other people may try to play up the intellectual or socially conscious side of their personalities, maybe by always linking to news stories about national politics. However, they do it, I think it can become problematic if someone feels like they have to keep up with everyone else, and that they're not measuring up if they're not tagged in two dozen new clubbing photos by every Sunday afternoon. A related problem is when someone seemingly loses the ability to be in the moment when they go out. Rather than enjoy their night, they're too busy snapping tons of pictures and thinking about how it'll all look online the next day.
The fact that you don't exist to certain people if you're not on Facebook
Not everyone is on Facebook. Some people have privacy concerns, or they just don't get a lot out of what the site has to offer. However, Facebook can be so central to the social lives of some people that if you don't have an account yourself then you totally drop off their radar. It's the main way they keep in touch with people and organize plans. Someone who's not on Facebook can really resent this. They feel like they're being socially punished just because they have reservations about joining the site.
Other miscellaneous opportunities for over-analysis
Even though people have enough real-life social situations to potentially overthink and tie themselves in knots over, Facebook presents brand new ones. Some examples that I haven't already brought up are:
- If you're concerned about what a particular person thinks of you, you may read too much into if, when, and how quickly they 'Like' your status updates. For example: "My friend and I had a fight this afternoon, and now they're not talking to me, but I posted a status update this evening, and they 'Liked' it. I wonder what that means?"
- Worrying about looking lame and overeager, or like you're stalking someone online if you 'Like' or comment on their status update or photo too quickly after it's posted.
- Similarly, being aware of how quickly you send a chat message to someone after they come online. Though this one applies to all kinds of Instant Messaging programs.
Other ways to worry about how you compare to other people
I already mentioned friend counts. There are other parts of Facebook where people will compare themselves to everyone else. The biggest one is probably regarding how many 'Likes' or comments their status updates get. Someone may take the time to compose a witty or insightful update, not get any 'Likes' or comments, then see someone else getting a ton of attention for posting something pretty generic, and get down on themselves about it.
Whether it's ultimately worth it to stay on Facebook
We all know there are lots of little things about Facebook that can be irritating. I touched on several of them in the points above. Here are a few more:
- A variety of tiresome status updates (e.g., inane, humble bragging, vague and passive aggressive or attention seeking)
- The way it can eat up too much of your time
- The constant confusing redesigns
- Privacy concerns
- Your feed getting cluttered up with scores your friends got in some game
- Slacktivism "support" of social causes
Some people wonder if it wouldn't just be better to ditch Facebook altogether. Also, I've noticed that if someone is feeling socially out of place and alienated from most people, they can focus on certain things as symbols of everything it is about society they can't relate to. Partying, clubbing, reality TV, and celebrity gossip are common targets. Facebook can be another one. Someone may be feeling that disconnect, and they can look at Facebook and think, "This is what most people are about? Posting what they ate for lunch, and putting up pictures where they're proud of how wasted they got?"
Personally I think Facebook has benefits and there are ways to manage its drawbacks. Some of the positives are:
- It's a good way to keep up with what people are doing, especially friendly acquaintances you don't know enough that you'd phone or email them otherwise. I think of it as quasi-keeping in touch. You're not directly contacting the other person, but you're indirectly staying on each other's minds and letting each other know what's going on in your lives through your Facebook activity.
- It's a really convenient way to organize get togethers. Create an official event, or just a message to a bunch of people, and then let them work out the details.
- Done properly and in moderation, it can be a good way to show your personality to people. Through your status updates, 'Liked' pages, or videos or articles you link to, you can let your friends know a bit about what makes you tick. I can think of acquaintances I've added to Facebook, who when I read their listed Interests, or saw an interesting story they linked to, thought, "Oh wow, I didn't know they were into that stuff."
You can mitigate the annoying stuff easily enough:
- Hide status updates from friends who don't post anything that interesting to you.
- Keep a smaller number of contacts. Your news feed will be a lot less cluttered if you're not seeing status updates from scores of people you barely know.
- Change your settings so your contacts can't see how many friends you have, if you're prone to worrying about whether people will judge over your number of contacts.
- Hide future status updates from games, apps, quizzes. These days Facebook is better about doing this automatically, thankfully.
- Turn your privacy settings up to the maximum and generally be discrete and sparing about what information you reveal about yourself. If you're just on the site to keep up with your friends you don't have to add a bunch of interests to your profile and give Facebook Inc. more marketing data.
- Maybe take a more easygoing view of what people do on Facebook. Maybe that one person isn't an attention junkie, and she just likes going out with her friends and then laughing about the memories and pictures afterward. Some people may like to hear that their one friend tried out a new cookie recipe, or that they went on a pleasant walk. Maybe they think it's a nice little detail about how they spent their day. And it's okay if some social exchanges are a bit inane. It doesn't have to be deep and meaningful all day, every day.