Props to Facebook

By Jeff Ginger
Last updated 08.2007
Synopsis: After a brief clarification of Facebook's relevance in our contemporary era this article refutes some of the most common criticisms of Facebook and provides suggestions for potential solutions and work-arounds. I leave off on a note of just the beginning of the benefits and potential positive aspects of the system.

The Salience of Facebook

I've often heard it said that the reason we respect and revere the great classics in literature is simply that they changed the way people thought. The same might be said of landmark inventions in technology - fire, the wheel, the printing press, gun powder, the telegraph, the internet and so much more - all of these altered the manner in which people thought about life. The advent of the Facebook social epidemic is arguably the beginning of one such technology.

I was reminded in a particularly strong way today. As I looked through the first assignment for a course I teach - a simple series of get-to-know-you questions survey - on it one of the questions was "What three websites do you visit every day?" Almost every single student wrote down two things: email in some form or another and Facebook. And that's really just it - Social Networking Services (SNS) have quickly become a part of everyday life and activity in the college student population, and stand to grow beyond.

I could quote all sorts of statistics about how people log-on so many times daily and spend a certain amount of time on given activities, or that the website is one of the most popular on the entire internet, but the fact of the matter is that Facebook (and presumably other SNS for younger or older generations) has yielded a monumental substantive impact on the everyday student perceptions of life. We make sense of the world with Facebook as an integral part of it. To quote from my own work (introduction to the Research Proposal):

One only need to talk to any given undergraduate student to unearth tangible substantive cultural impacts. Everyone has a story, or in all likelihood a whole manifold of experiences, narratives, and interpretations of the system. If language is a signifier of pertinence, then just like to Google and to Photoshop have become verbs in the vernacular, “to Friend” has aspired to this status as well in regards to Facebook. Students have forged extensive investments in the system and many have developed dependencies in varying forms – social capital, extension of personality, community awareness and involvement, initiation and continuance of both personal relationships as well as group membership. Indeed, many students are learning to check their Facebook messages as much as Email and update their Facebook status almost as much as they do with instant messenger away messages. The high usage patterns are a logical consequence of the bridge between offline and online connections (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006) and really the relationship between the two previously largely separated worlds has become strongly coproducing.

The potential avenues for influence are numerous, especially among US youth populations. Outside of science and technology studies sociology tends to consider internet technology as peripheral or incongruous. Education and research have a great deal to learn from the incarnations, uses, interpretations and social movements of new media. As sociology concerns itself with informing people of the shifts of the future we ought to pay attention to the influences Facebook will have – especially as it becomes nominally interlaced into the work place. Facebook extends the interactions of the face to face world and virtually everything encapsulated in it, including the effects and impacts of the many social groups and analytic categories traditionally of concern to sociology – gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, ability and mental illness, class and geography, age and education, and countless others. The ramifications of this claim insinuate that examination of Facebook ought to intersect with all subsets and variations of sociology.

There's no question that Facebook has changed college life as we know it. In essence this answers the implicit questions - Is Facebook a big deal? Do we have to do anything about it? Any mind that affords rational consideration to student interests would answer indisputably, yes.


So beyond the questions of relevance we meet the all too common American dichotomy - Is Facebook a good or a bad thing?

Some might say this is also irrelevant - despite classifications the system is here to stay - but that notion suspended, I can resolutely say it is both and everything in between. Just as with virtually any other technology, communication medium, form of media, system of ideas, way of interacting or even seeing the world, the answer is contextual.

I'd like to be a little more precise and move on to more specific complaints:

I'm older and Facebook isn't a big deal to me. Why should I care?

The best part is that I hear this sort of response from people who ought to know the Sociological Imagination all too well. Learning to see from other's perspectives and connect individual experiences to greater social forces, structures, and processes is an instrumental and crucial process in life. It may not relate very much to you, but you'd better be able to relate to Facebook users and understand their perspectives if you care to learn something about the system. If the person saying this is an educator or social science researcher I would have to frown. It's our duty as educators to be concerned with perspectives and perceptions - we can be much more effective teachers if we learn to connect to our students on a deeper or more effective level.

Facebook is invasive to privacy.

So are windows without curtains drawn. The misalignment of audience - unintended exposure of private information - is nothing new. These days virtually all users are concerned with closing the virtual curtains to those whom they do not wish to let in (upcoming publication citation ought to go here... for now know I have statistics to back it). I mean are you really surprised? After 2 years of news articles spouting nothing but the horrible repercussions of Facebook (yes, that whole culture of fear thing, same reason we turn on the television news and just hear about people dying and other tragedies) users have begun to pay more attention.

I think there's a bigger issue at hand here - perhaps a generational difference. Many users simply don't mind exposing an identity of themselves in an online environment.  It’s natural to younger generations and simply another area of life in which they perform and manage their identity. Students are increasingly comfortable showing more online than they would in person (Qcquisti and Gross 2006, Stutzman 2005, and my own work TBA) and that's a bit disconcerting to older generations. Sure one could say we're naive or brutally advantaged - but I also think our generation is finding ways to shed the irrational fears our parent's generation spent so much time and effort constructing and reinforcing. The reality is starting to shine through - news reports on the few sexual predators, crimes, and tragic outcomes enabled by Facebook stand in stark contrast that for the vast majority of users there aren't negative repercussions to self-exposure and online identity formation.  On the contrary it's a smorgeous board of potential opportunities and advantages. To most the trade off of loss of privacy is welcomed - especially when voluntary and user controlled.

The Facebook newsfeed exemplifies this concept. When the situation was one in which users couldn't alter what was exposed to the global community about them they revolted. After changes allowing users to pick what information is published the community soon embraced the newsfeed.
So in response to those who claim that Facebook is invasive to privacy - I say that it depends on what you consider private and how you see privacy. Like face-to-face life this varies from person to person and by context.  The social norms of privacy on Facebook are quite different then they are in every day life.

Facebook is a waste of time.

I even hear avid users say this one. I really disagree. The use of our time is dependent upon the way we value activities. If someone says watching TV is a waste of time we could ask them why. They might reply that you learn nothing from it, or that you produce nothing from it, or that your relative gains in pleasure are less than they would be resultant from other activities. Generally I think it's a value judgment that begs the question - what about the activities users perform on Facebook are a waste of time?

I'd instead like to postulate that Facebook has the strong potential to be a very effective use of time. The system is asynchronous and is assured to have almost complete coverage over your peer group if you're in college. This means you can communicate with many, many people at whatever time you like. Face-to-face interactions are generally held between just one or a few people, and they must occur at the same point in time and everyone must be in the same place. Facebook is efficient in that it saves time by making communication easier - any time and to as many people as you want, no matter where they are.

The quality of interaction is another question entirely, but Facebook does offer a multitude of ways users can interact. Face-to-face communication might be better for say, consoling someone after a bad breakup, but poor for say, sharing a dozen videos on Youtube. Nobody ever said Facebook was a good replacement for face-to-face interaction. Most of us suggest it as a supplement or extension.

And here again, we have a question of perceptions and values. We all value different activities and time usage in different ways.

Facebook friends aren't real friends.

I think this is a good example of how Facebook has changed how we see the world. What constitutes a friend now has another dimension - acquaintances, best friends, and strangers are nothing new, but Facebook gives everyone the same title. New applications that allow you to rank or categorize your friends aside, this is a bit of a disruption of the way we normally consider our social web. Most of us think of ourselves at the center with our closest friends and family in a limited circle surrounding us. Other people fall outside of that - with a sort of series of complicated layers of importance and relation.

I'd invite critics to see Facebook friends as more as a representation of a large social network - inclusive of both strong and weak ties. If you'd like to construct your web to include only your closest contacts then nothing is stopping you. The generalized meaning, however, is one of varied connection - a modern day method to express or keep track of our weak ties among individuals. College is the sort of environment saturated with these opportunities.

The number of friends or acquaintances a person has is probably more about how they make sense of connection and friendship. From your perspective they might be a faker or desperate, from theirs they might just see it as a world full of people who are all worth getting to know. As with my other responses, it roots with a question of perspectives and differences between understandings.

More questions?

I suspect there are many more I haven't covered here but I tried to hit the big three. I'll toss this one around and get some responses and try to integrate new ideas in.

Benefits and Potential Advantages

So now that we've addressed the 'big problems' with Facebook why don't we think about some of the brilliant aspects. Since I could write all day about it I'll just give you bullets:

More than anything, for you critics out there - I issue you this challenge: Facebook is largely what we make it. Our actions and efforts can help to tangibly change the system. So if you believe Facebook needs to be better or different - then act on that conviction and inspire some positive change!