Facebooked

The Thinker by Rodin

Remember when I said I didn’t need a social network? Okay, maybe you don’t remember. I likely don’t have a lot of regular readers and those I do have probably don’t recall some vague post I made on the social networking phenomenon back in 2008. Yet, somehow I seem to have found myself on Facebook.

Those social networking psychologists, they sure are tricky. They hit me at my Achilles Heel. I take pride in not having a whole lot of friends but some of the friends I do have are on Facebook. Some of them (I won’t mention any names) kept persisting month after month by sending me these electronic invitations to join Facebook. Sometimes they actually sent me personal emails to try to convince me to join. Think of how much better we’ll be connected, they told me.

One day a few months ago, it just became easier for me to join Facebook than it was to decline and hurt my friends’ feelings yet again. The peer pressure finally got to me. I had hardly set up my account on Facebook before my sister and one of my friends started chatting away with me in Facebook. For a brief moment, I was impressed. I never got this much attention from them until I joined them in the Facebook enclave. I could feel the love.

Now they knew I kept up on every aspect of their lives, or at least those parts they were willing to post in Facebook. Ah, and there’s the rub. I wasn’t on more than a couple hours before I started tinkering with Facebook’s privacy settings. How much about myself was I willing to share with the world? I quickly decided: as little as possible. Would I be like many on Facebook and have hundreds or thousands of friends? Would I keep up with the friend of someone I know vaguely from church? No way! I decided that if I were going to share things about myself on Facebook then they would have to be a real friend, not some casual acquaintance.

So my list of friends is unimpressive. I regularly decline or ignore friend requests because, quite frankly, I consider them acquaintances, not friends. I currently have twenty-five friends, and nine of them are relatives, which means I have only 14 real Facebook friends. The good part is that all my Facebook friends are real friends. They are people I have interacted significantly with in real life, who I want to keep in touch with (albeit not necessarily every day) and whose opinions I respect. Frankly, I didn’t know I had that many friends.

In some cases, they are now distant friends. They include a now 37-year-old woman who nearly a quarter century ago was our foster child and who rarely got more from me than a Christmas card with a family newsletter. Now I get to read her daily psychic horoscope. They include some cyber friends who I actually have met in person over the years but otherwise rarely chat with regularly. They include some former coworkers who I liked so much we traded email addresses when I left. In addition, they include a couple current coworkers with whom my relationship is more than superficial.

Still, even with my privacy settings up to very high, just how much about myself am I willing to post on Facebook? It turns out: not a whole lot. If I have marital issues, I’m not going to tell them about it via Facebook. I’m not even going to tell my family, but if I do it will probably be over a landline or in person and certainly not on Facebook. What sort of interesting stuff am I willing to share with my friends? I link them to a Jon Stewart video. I tell them I painted the garage door this weekend. I ask for vacation suggestions. It’s very innocuous stuff.

It is true that via Facebook that I am learning things about my friends that I would probably not otherwise know. Renee is looking to rent her townhouse and escape to third world countries. My nephew got a new set of glasses. Sometimes I learn interesting things. What is lacking is the sort of intimate details that you might glean over a cup of coffee. It seems my Facebook friends understand that posts on Facebook could come back to haunt them if they are not careful. With Facebook free to change its terms of service anytime it wants, it’s best to keep conversation pretty superficial. Who knows what future employer might check me out in Facebook and find out I was recently in the hospital for clinical depression? (Umm, I wasn’t really, at least as far as you know, but you get the idea.)

I have also joined a few Facebook groups and fan sites, but for the most part, I don’t have the time to delve into these groups. They are mainly means to alert my friends about what interests me. I do tend to check Facebook most days because it comes up as a browser tab automatically, but sometimes I forget. Moreover, as I use Facebook more often, I find it less and less compelling.

The truth is, I regret getting on Facebook. My instincts were correct. I am not yet courageous enough to close my account. Why? I am a weenie. I don’t like confrontation. For my friends might feel that if I closed my account, I don’t think learning the details of their lives are that important. While I appreciate those nuggets I have learned about my friends, Facebook has a high signal to noise ratio. At best maybe five percent of the things I learn about my friends truly engages me.

I also find plenty of things that annoy me about Facebook. What annoys me the most is simply its commercial nature. Of course, Facebook needs to make a profit, so they throw ads at me in the right sidebar. They want me to rate ads on whether I like or do not like them. Like hell. The last thing I am going to do is volunteer more information about how to successfully market to me.

As for its user interface, I have to wonder if a bunch of trolls created it. Truly, it is baffling confusing. Perhaps it is one of these interfaces that if you have been in it for a few years would make complete sense. There are endless notifications. You have a home page, but you also have a wall, and it’s unclear what the difference is. I find myself posting stuff on other people’s walls that I should have put on mine because pages can’t be customized, so they all look the same. I can’t edit posts or comments. It reminds me of software, like Microsoft Project, that are largely baffling and frustrating for the average user, but who has to use it anyhow. I just don’t get the interface. I find it annoying. What is “Top News”? How does Facebook decide? Why not just show “Most Recent” all the time? Why do I get all these notifications I don’t care about?

My suspicion is that within the next few months I will just give it up. It will have to be done carefully. Perhaps I will go from checking daily to once a week, and then once a month, and then once a quarter. If one of my friends asks, I will sheepishly admit I find the site largely a waste of my time and could they please email me, call me on the phone or meet me for a cup of coffee? Perhaps if there were a non-commercial version of Facebook that actually was usable, I would migrate to it.

I frankly don’t understand the fuss about Facebook. If it died tomorrow, I would be fine and even happy. I would not miss it at all. I hope that enough people who agree with me will find the courage I currently lack, and just get off it altogether. Facebook, like other technologies like Twitter, or for that matter Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section, I find to be largely a waste of my time.

I don’t need no social network

The Thinker by Rodin

Have you been friended? Have you friended others? Has much of your free time been consumed by developing an electronic social network, the vast majority of which are essentially people you have never actually met but who you only “know” because they are a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, or because you mistakenly gave someone your business card at a party? Do you measure your self worth based on how many friends you have on MySpace or Facebook or one of the myriad other social networks out there?

If so, have fun with it. I have decided at age fifty-one that I will be a social network curmudgeon. This is odd because I was an early social network adapter. I was one of the first people to discover electronic bulletin boards, which preceded the Internet. They were arguably the first online social networks. I still count as friends many of my people from those BBSing days. They are not people who “friended” me; they are my real friends because we have actually met and talked to each other in the same time and place.

The truth is I cannot be bothered to get a social network. That is not to say I did not put a toe into the social networking world. A co-worker mentioned some years ago that he had a MySpace page. I figured as someone whose job involves staying on top of Internet trends so I could determine their value for my organization, I should check out this social networking thing. So I created my very own MySpace page. I was so pathetic that my only “friend” was Tom, a.k.a. Tom Anderson, MySpace’s first president, and he would be anyone’s friend, no questions asked. Even Jeffrey Dahmer could be one of Tom’s friends. I posted a few public things about myself and then tried to forget about MySpace. I could find nothing compelling about it. What was all the fuss about anyhow?

Amazingly though I kept getting “friended” by all sorts of complete strangers, many of them half my age, of a different gender and who looked great in bathing suits, and even better out of them. Many had links to their personal home pages where I could see revealing photos of them, but the good stuff apparently required a fee. Why would they charge me, their friend, a fee?

I occasionally went back to MySpace to check things out, always finding a queue of people who wanted to be my friend, none of whom I actually knew. Of course if I had been more forthcoming about whom I was, perhaps my neighbors and real friends would have friended me too. I guess I should have friended them too. Except that, I could not. I do not have many friends, but those I do have I want to keep. Did I want them to join my online social network and thereby likely subject them to lots of bogus friends, advertising and the resulting loss of physical activity that comes from hanging out online with your friends all day? No, I could not. I thought too highly of them.

Ideally, if I wanted to talk with my friends I would stop by their house or call them on the phone. No one drops by people’s houses just to chat anymore. The phone works as always, but I am not one of those people whose social life is organized around their cell phone. Mostly, if I want to chat with my friends, I send them an email or occasionally we use instant messaging. If necessary I will phone them, but email is kinder because it is asynchronous and I do not want to interrupt them.

If you are going to spurn social networks, it helps to be introverted. I come by it naturally and I think it is hardwired into the chromosomes of both sides of my family. Parties give me hives. I am fine in small groups of people but if I have to endure a gathering of more than a dozen, unless they are family it tends to be painful. The ultimate nightmare for me is to have to endure a large party or social gathering where I know nobody. This does happen occasionally and is usually business-related. For example, every couple of years I will be sent (or send myself) to some sort of convention alone. There are always social gatherings. Unless I know a few people who are attending, who I will try to hang out with, I will freeze up and spend inordinate amounts of time grazing the chips and dips.

Perhaps that also explains my aversion to social networks. In theory for an introvert like me, a social network should be perfect. After all, I do not have to interact and when I do, I can do so from the safety of my personal computer. While I am always interested in the comings and goings of my friends, I have zero desire to know about the comings and goings of friends of my friends, or their friends ad infinitum. As I age I am learning that time is a finite resource. With luck, I will be around on this planet another thirty or forty years. How should I spend this time? Should I spend it making tenuous electronic connections in case I want to start a second business, advance my profession or need a date? On the other hand, should I spend it doing something that gives me more meaning or enjoyment? For me, the answer is very simple. Screw the social networking stuff. It is nice when I get the occasional invitation from a friend to join their electronic social network. It means they are thinking about me. I just hope that as a condition of friendship they do not expect me to regularly hit their Facebook page.

I have discovered that even my siblings do not really care that much about my happenings. After all, we are married with children. I send detailed emails three or four times a year summarizing events going on. That seems to satisfy them and for the most part, they do not bother to reply with questions. Their level of concern will of course skyrocket if something dreadful happened to me personally, or my wife or daughter. For the most part, they do not care about my regular comings or goings. I am often indifferent to theirs as well.

I have even stopped promoting my blog among my family and friends. My family is aware of it, but except for a dutiful sibling or two, they ignore it, having busy and fulfilling lives of their own. The same is true with my friends. Obviously, I still invest an inordinate amount of time and effort in my blog, but its purposes are not to acquire a social network. It exists to feed my own sense of vanity (which is actually rather small), perfect the art of writing, and to pass on to the universe and my fellow citizens my musings, some of which may be useful.

Most people’s experience with social networks is probably like these people’s. There may come a day when I will want to have an active social network, and I will rue that I have not spent time today to acquire one. I doubt that day will arrive. My suspicion (or perhaps just my hope) is that within five years social networks will just collapse over their own bloated and likely worthless weight.