I joined Facebook sometime in the summer following high school graduation to keep in touch with friends and to transition to college by friending random NYU upperclassmen to ask them about the school, both in anticipation over attending it in a few months and in worry over whether i made the right choice. I also randomly friended other NYU freshmen if i liked their Interests. Shameful, i know, judging people by their Facebook profiles, but i didn’t know better back then. Both these types of friend requests, especially the latter, would be considered inappropriate by today’s Facebook etiquette, and some of these friends are still on my list, showing up in my News Feed from time to time. Not including those upperclassmen who were very nice to me, providing helpful advice and still checking in on me from time to time, and those “interesting profile” people who, to this day, write witty status updates and share interesting links (which i’m always looking for), these people don’t matter to me and i wish i hadn’t been so thoughtless to friend them in the first place. I know there’s the option of hiding specific people’s activity, preventing them from showing up in your News Feed, but even the thought of doing that makes me feel guilty (even though i know they’ll never know), because i was the one who friended them.
Today, i use Facebook for three things: keeping up with my friends’ lives, communicating with Facebook-appointment-making-exclusive friends (to be explained later), and for keeping up with the online and offline world.
Since my social life is nearly non-existent, i rely on Facebook to find out what my friends are up to and remind myself that there is indeed life happening above the rock i sometimes live under. As for the above-mentioned FAME friends, i have a select group of friends, mostly those i’ve made in college, with whom i make appointments to see each other almost exclusively on Facebook (as opposed to by e-mail or phone). And these are mostly college friends because, as opposed to high school when i didn’t have Facebook and didn’t need it to make friends, almost all of my college friendships either took place entirely over Facebook or were largely undergirded by it, with the help of friendly messaging and wall posting and link sharing. In other words, without Facebook, it would probably have been much harder for me to make friends in college, especially since i went to a school with over 20,000 undergrads. I don’t know if that says more about me or Facebook or NYU.
Sometimes these two activities overlap (i.e. i keep up with certain FAME friends’ lives via their Facebook activity because i actually consider them as close friends, and i sometimes make appointments with close friends with whom i rarely communicate on Facebook), but the third, to me, always remains a separate activity, and it is my favorite use of Facebook. Facebook News Feed is my news source. I have my RSS feeds for Op/Eds and favorite blogs, but for those mundane and/or hyperlocal news such as whether school’s having a snow day or not, i turn to Facebook. During one of the snow storms this past semester, my NF read like this:
Columbia’s closed!! (x2)
New School’s closed!!! (x3)
Come on, NYU!!!! (x50)
I don’t even need to check real news for World Cup scores, cos my soccerhead buddies have been posting every single one, some even providing intermittent commentary. As for hard news, i have a hard time following it because with the amount of reading i do daily on topics i am specifically interested and invested in, i just can’t keep up with the overwhelming amount of news that comes in everyday. This is where Facebook fits the bill: I know which of my friends share my interests, so as long as i keep an eye out for the links they share, i get my fill of news that appeals to me, and i don’t have to waste my time digging through all the other news. Though a lot is sure to slip through the cracks, it’s perfect selective news reading, at least for my lifestyle. My Facebook friends also deliver when it comes to the latest news in digital technology. It pays to have majored in Media, Culture, and Communication: your friends are tirelessly updating everyone around them with the latest developments in the world of tech and the newest, most interesting trends on the interwebs. And even though i’m hopelessly out of the loop on pop culture, i know who Lady Gaga is, thanks to my NF.
These are the reasons why i love Facebook and find myself on it way more than i should be. Due to its streamlined interface and network-forming power, Facebook makes information sharing fun and communal, which is why i call it an information playground. But wherever there are people, there is politics, and Facebook politics sometimes makes me wonder if the advantages to using this social network really outweigh the disadvantages.
I. At the developers’ level
The only problem i have at this level is the lack of privacy. As everyone knows, it’s a big issue. Nothing in our Facebook accounts is private, no matter what our Privacy settings, because Facebook owns it all. Everything you’ve shared so far, you can never reclaim. Same goes for Google, but that’s an even bigger issue that i don’t feel like getting into now, and probably ever. Needlessly to say, i’m quite excited for diaspora*, a decentralized social network in the making that gives you complete control and ownership over your information (check their official site and this NYT article for more info). It also solves the problem of using too many different social media and often not the same ones as your friends, which really, really bugs me.
II. At the users’ level
Just using the damn thing is like a strangely convoluted political affair. Let’s say someone writes on your wall. You respond by writing on their wall, because that’s the way you’ve always done this wall-posting business before the feature of commenting on wall posts came into existence, or maybe you have your own political or philosophical reason for doing it this way. But the other person opts for commenting on your post on their wall instead of revisiting your wall to write on it, and now this information that was meant to be communicated to you is also communicated to everyone who has access to your friend’s wall. And as of now, there is no satisfying way of ensuring such communication goes exactly the way you want. You could opt to disable the wall altogether and leave private messaging as your friends’ only means of contacting you, but this isn’t a satisfying or custom-tailored solution because it requires a sacrifice of one feature of Facebook on your part, in fact, the very feature that makes Facebook communal. Enabling only private messaging doesn’t make sense, because you have e-mail for that kind of stuff.
The way i see it, the wall post commenting feature is nonsensical, almost absurd, when taken in context of conversation. If either one of you opts for commenting instead of wall-to-wall replying, then what was meant to be a conversation between the two of you is now easily readable all in one glance on either of your walls by anyone who has access to it. It doesn’t matter if others also could have read it like this by using the wall-to-wall filter on either of your walls; in order to do that, you have to click “Wall-to-wall” and have access to both walls. I think there is a difference between having a conversation displayed in the middle of your public wall for any non-mutual friend to see and having a mutual friend be able to use the wall-to-wall feature on you and your friend. Most of the time, it’s not even about wanting to keep conversations private and away from certain eyes. I just think it’s weird to have conversations put on display.
But sometimes, you just don’t want something to be written publicly. Let’s complete the scenario we started with. Jane writes on your wall. In reply, you write on her wall. She comments on your wall post to reply to you. Her reply is now on her wall. Anyone who has access to her wall, including those people you do not know, can now see her reply to you. Up to this point, there are no privacy intrusions. You chose to write on her wall, and she, in reply, wrote on her own wall, which is all well and good. Now you reply by commenting in turn, and you hit a point in the conversation where you’d rather communicate something to her in private. Hence, the awkward shift to private messaging or e-mailing or what-have-you. Maybe some people don’t have a problem with this shift, but i do. I can’t stand it. I want to be able to carry out any and all conversations without having to make this awkward shift, but as far as i’ve experienced, Facebook doesn’t make that possible for me. That’s why these days, i have to actually think about the possible ramifications of my wall posts at length before replying to one. I have thoughts like, ‘If i reply on my wall, i can ensure that the conversation will continue here, so i won’t have to worry about her friends being privy to it’ or, ‘If i reply on her wall, i won’t have to worry about my friends seeing this conversation, but who knows who might see the conversation on her wall? Oh, and who are our mutual friends?’ I don’t want to have to think these things. Many things in life are complicated enough that i don’t need this to be complicated, too.
It’s not just the wall posts. There’s no clear rationale behind tagging and photo ownership, either. If a friend tags you in his photos, is he or she still their sole owner, or are you also part owner? Let’s say Joe tags you in one of his photos. It now appears in “Photos of you.” You’d think all of your friends who have access to photos of you should be able to see this photo, but due to Joe’s privacy settings, your friends cannot see it. Yes, it is technically still Joe’s photo, and he should get to decide who can see his photos or not, but if tagging you in it means that it now becomes a photo of you—in other words, a part of your profile—shouldn’t your network be able to access it, too? The very act of tagging should correspond to allocating a share of the ownership. If you just want to label the people in your photos, you have the option of writing their names in the caption. On the other end of the private-open spectrum, the fact that you can see a non-friend’s album in its entirety just because one of your friends was tagged in some of its photos doesn’t seem quite right to me.
And if you use Facebook mostly for keeping in touch with friends, your status update box becomes a sort of platform. If you don’t give a public update once in a while, you might as well have dropped off the face of the earth. It’s sad, but true: if people don’t see you come up in their NF for weeks, they’re gonna forget that you exist. You can’t blame them, because those friends of theirs who pretty much live on Facebook clog their NF enough to keep them occupied. Facebook interaction has become more about commenting on each other’s activities online (such as status updates and uploaded media) than writing someone just because you thought of them out of the blue. In this way, Facebook encourages superficial information sharing over meaningful interpersonal contact. Depending on how you use Facebook, this could be a good thing or a bad thing.
I just hope diaspora* makes good on all its promises when its first iteration is released in September. With that promising month approaching pretty quickly, i’m resigned to just make do with Facebook instead of wasting my time trying to come up with a solution to many of its inadequacies. At least i still have intelligent, well-read friends sharing all kinds of good stuff on there.