I was a relatively early user of Facebook, creating my first account in early 2007, because lots of people at work had accounts and talked about it frequently and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. In those days, I knew only a handful of people with Facebook accounts, whereas now I know only a handful who don’t have one.
It certainly wasn’t my first experience with social networking. I had previously used the much more limited Friends Reunited, which had seemed like a good idea for a while, until it dawned on me that, while getting in touch with people I hadn’t seen in 25 years seemed like a good idea at the time, and brought a short and welcome burst of nostalgia, there were actually good reasons why many of us had never kept in touch.
Initially, the majority of my Facebook “friends” were work colleagues. I was working for a multinational company at the time and keeping in touch with colleagues, not talking about work and finding out a little bit more about what made them tick personally was initially appealing.
Over a period of time, however, my experience and attitude towards it changed, partly because of changes in my “friends” list and partly because of changes in Facebook itself.
I deliberately use the word “friends” in quotes because I know many people with hundreds, even thousands, of “friends” on Facebook but I suspect only a tiny proportion are genuine friends. Certainly in the early days I was adding people who I had never actually met. We may have exchanged some emails, or joined in a teleconference or two, but we were certainly not real friends.
I think the use of the word “friends” is a clever marketing technique, because there is a certain amount of implied emotional blackmail. When someone says they want to be your “friend”, some may feel guilty about refusing such a request.
Eventually I cancelled my account and set up a completely new one. There were many reasons for doing this, but the main one was that I had a “friends” list containing around 400 names and there were probably around 300 of these with whom I almost never interacted and/or who were also on my wife’s “friends” list, so we were both reading the same updates from the same people.
I started having a cull, but Facebook does not make it easy to bulk delete several people at once. In fact, it probably quite deliberately makes it quite difficult. Starting from scratch is easier. My logic was that, if I missed somebody off who genuinely did want to keep in touch with me, they would add me. By and large it worked. I deliberately set a policy of not adding people I had never met, no kids and only a very small proportion of people already on my wife’s friends list, mainly relatives and genuine close friends. I have not adhered to that policy strictly since, but it has worked well overall. My “friends” list is now more manageable and, with a few exceptions, my news feed mainly contains updates that genuinely interest me.
However, it is those few exceptions that cause me to frequently think about coming away from Facebook altogether. Political ranting and offensive standpoints, racist scaremongering, ludicrous hoaxes and other viral nonsense and silly games – none of these appeal to me, and none are what I want to read. I respect the rights of those who do like them, but I choose not to. I have unfriended (and I truly hate that word) a few people for posting very bigoted, offensive statements that they may genuinely believe, but they are not what I consider to be the light reading I want to see when I log onto a social network.
Facebook is a victim of its own success. With around a billion users, there is no way everyone can want the same things out of it, so, no matter what they do, a certain proportion will be unhappy about it. What interests me may be dull, even annoying, to others and vice versa.
Facebook has many good things going for it. It can be a very effective way of keeping in touch with distant friends and family, and can be an extremely good marketing tool, but for some it is a thief of time. Often I can be out and see a group of people sitting together not making eye contact, as all have their eyes on various mobile devices updating or reading Facebook and adding the most mundane minutiae of trivial information. Some may even be communicating on Facebook with each other, despite being only a few feet apart.
Facebook has somewhat diluted the meaning of the word “friend” to a new generation and has culturally undermined privacy and intimacy. No longer is it the first thought of people who experience a bad day or a funny experience to share it with friends known since childhood or a family member, perhaps over a drink or shared meal. Instead the experience is thrown out to the world, often with pictures and captions.
Is this a good or bad thing? I genuinely don’t know. I think perhaps it is both. I may waver regularly, but I am still on Facebook. I just think that sometimes the social networking experience can be rather anti-social and I prefer communication with me to be to my face, not my Facebook.