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Life on the Couch

Facebook – friend or foe?

Master OSM 2011/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It’s hard to remember life without social media.

I saw my first computer in high school – it was the size of a fridge and didn’t have a keyboard. We had to use cards to enter data. We excitedly programmed it to write “happy birthday” and “school is boring” over and over. We weren’t quite in Bill Gate’s league.

In 1991 I bought my first personal computer, a Macintosh Classic. Soon after I connected to the internet (it was $36 per hour). Since then it’s been a blur – faster, smaller, sleeker, cheaper, phones, shopping, music, maps, apps, cameras and more. And somewhere along the line – social media. If anything separates this century from the last, it’s social media.

In the landscape of our social media options – Facebook is at the summit. It began its ascent in 2004 and today has reached some impressive statistics; one billion people use it each month (there are only seven billion people in the world); 60% of the world’s adults have used it; it is available in over 70 different languages. It’s even assisted in overthrowing governments and enabled coordinated worldwide change.

One hundred years ago you’d be lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective) if you knew 100 people. If you wanted to say something, a handful would listen. If you had some really juicy gossip, it might reach a couple of hundred people but it would take time and like Chinese Whispers was impacted by personal interpretation.

Social media facilitates quick and vast communication through an intricate web of cyber connection. We now have a tool at our fingertips that helps large numbers of people to connect, think and act in unison like never before. We’ve never been able to share our thoughts on such a large scale.

Social media rewrites the rules on who has a voice. You don’t need to be a great writer, thinker, leader or media mogul to spread your ideas. All you have to do now is create an account and enter the magic world of social media. Good ideas, bad ideas, messages of hope, anger, hate, terror….all can be spread at the click of a button.

The sociologists among us are only just starting to explore the consequences of this phenomenon. Lots of studies but not many conclusions. There’s some soft evidence to suggest overuse might make you unhappy but not everyone agrees. There are lots of stories of people shooting themselves in the foot through over-exposure. But there’s not much else. We have a social phenomenon affecting half the world and only guesswork to help understand the consequences! Is it frightening or exciting?

Why is Facebook so popular?

It might help to start with why Facebook is so popular. Why do you use it? The numerous photos, the access into other people’s lives, some news, easy contact with family/friends, a good way to meet new friends, a fun way to re-connect with old friends, an easy way to advertise, a new way to do business, games, dates, invites to events… The list goes on.

I like Facebook, but with mixed feelings. Most of my family and friends are on it. I know one sister went to the beach today, I know the other practiced violin. My father went to the RSL for a beer last night. I’ll put a link to this column on my Facebook page later. I’ll check first thing tomorrow to see if I have any likes. I’ll check out the comments, I might respond. It feels comforting to interact with friends and family. I feel less alone.

I’ve racked my brain thinking about the psychology of Facebook. Certainly part of the attraction is that it feeds our narcissism. Facebook provides a perfect way to present ourselves to the world as we would like to be seen. We present our “preferred” self. “Image sculpting”, as some people see it.

George Burns: “Sincerity - if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Image sculpting is difficult in the real world: your emotions and body language are hard to hide; they can betray you. This is less so in the virtual world of social media.

What do you post? Are you careful? It’s easy to get it wrong or be misinterpreted – I might think a photo shows my fun side, others might see it as pathetic attention seeking. I might put up a comment while drunk or angry and I might regret it later. Either way, Facebook feeds and encourages narcissism.

It also feeds into our inherent curiosity about what everyone else is doing. Facebook is a way to spy into the lives of others – Facebook stalking. You can compare yourself to others. It’s a yardstick. The trap here is that most people only post their successes. You could easily get fooled into thinking the world is a party and you’re not invited.

Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Another psychological factor is the positive reward effect from making Facebook posts. Intermittent positive reward is the strongest form of reward – it’s what drives the gambling industry – the odd, unpredictable wins. It’s stronger than predictable positive reward. Facebook provides intermittent positive reward in spades. Will I get any “likes” from this post? How many? Of course there are no “hates”. You can get negative comments, but comments are far rarer than likes. Facebook tips the balance dramatically in favour of being liked, but it’s intermittent and unpredictable. A perfect recipe to entice users.

Is Facebook a statement of an acute desire for social connections? For decades researchers have said large cities can be lonelier than small towns. Given the worldwide shift towards urbanisation, maybe Facebook’s popularity is a response to feeling lost in a crowd?

The down side?

Many say Facebook is just another fad – it comes, we get excited, it goes, we move onto the next big thing and forget. Like any fad, overuse – or even addiction – is a risk. Some people report being hooked on checking their page and feeling out of control of their use. There is a risk that Facebook will reduce real, face-to-face, non-digital social interactions. Is our apparent “connection” actually leading to a disconnection?

Lots of people simply hate Facebook. They see its superficiality, they frown at the self-promotion, they would rather contact their friends in more meaningful ways, preferring real, close friends to large numbers of acquaintances. I also notice that many wear their Facebook-hate with pride. Like a badge of honour.

Or maybe it’s more than that – maybe they are sensing something that us users are missing? Maybe Facebook is heralding a decline of some sort? A decline in communication, or individuality, or maybe just privacy? Of course just because you’re a Facebook user doesn’t mean you are excluded from the old ways. You can still chat over a coffee; you can still use the telephone.

One thing seems certain: social media is changing the way we communicate. If change is a slow burning fire, Facebook is an accelerant. Facebook is speeding up the fires of change. Facebook will be clicked on today about 800 million times. I love change, but it does make me a little nervous.

Acknowledgement: Miriam Ercole contributed to the preparation of this column.

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