The whole idea for these posts came from my feelings after reading Winda Benedetti’s MSNBC article “Five reasons why I took a Facebreak.” (Thanks @lllittlefield and @LKassenbrock)  I found myself honestly upset, which was weird.  I’m defending a website and an industry that I (currently) have no personal or financial stake in.  I’m a user, just like everyone else.  But the article brought up many concerns and complaints that I constantly hear from non-users and haters alike.  I could go through sentence by sentence and pick it apart, but I’ll stick to the five main points.

To Facebreak or not to Facebreak?

To Facebreak or not to Facebreak?

1.  The black hole
This basically refers to the amount of time that’s often wasted Facebooking (or Tweeting, etc.) by getting sucked in to everything the site has to offer.
“It’s a testament to just how compelling an experience the folks at Facebook have created, and bravo to them.  But I need that time back. I’ve got an honest-to-goodness non-digital life to attend to.”
But wait.  Again, as I pointed out in my post “Does social media redefine neighborly interaction?” and as Ivor Tossell points out in his piece from Canada’s Globe and Mail, are these online friendships not real?  Unless you’re “friend-whoring” and requesting everyone you see, these are real people with whom you have real relationships with at some level or another.  It’s not the folks at Facebook who make these people compelling…this is your life.

However, getting sucked into a black hole of not real stuff is a possibility.  “There were vampires and zombies that had virtually bitten me, and expected to be virtually bitten in return. I’d been poked and the question begging to be answered: Would I poke back, or would I remove said poke as though said poke had never happened?”
Here’s the thing.  Just like your television having an “Off” position, Facebook apps – most of which are mind-numbingly stupid – have an “Ignore” button as well.  Accepting every stupid request that your n00b (if you don’t know, I’m talking about you) Facebook friend sends you would be like accepting every single invitation to go out with friends, or keeping every toy that comes in the cereal box.  Eventually, you’re going to have a stressful life and a kitchen full of clutter…and only crazy people do that, right?

2.  Oy, the guilt
This is nothing new.  Online networking hasn’t changed the basic human condition and emotion of guilt.  11-year-old Lizzy was going to be upset if you didn’t return her note in third period, just as the 33-year-old Elizabeth might get a little extra sensitive if you don’t comment back on her wall post.  Don’t blame online networking for the emotional faults of your friends.

3.  Where has my history gone?
“With time, those friendships of yore acquire the warm shimmer of nostalgia and your experiences with these people take up a special (if not entirely accurate) place in your memories.  But reconnecting with long-lost friends … can be a jarring experience to say the least. … Sometimes reading their profile is a fun, fascinating journey of rediscovery. … Sometimes, your friends’ political, personal and religious affiliations — so neatly summarized on Facebook’s Info page — don’t seem to describe the person you remember, but instead seem to describe a stranger … a strange, dislikable stranger.”
I do kind of sympathize with this one.  It’s similar to people saying that they’d be hesitant to meet their favorite movie star, athlete, or musician out of fear that they’d be a real jerk, thus shattering the perfect image you’ve had in your mind.  But personal experiences shape our adult lives.  Just because you and Timmy had awesome times playing basketball in middle school doesn’t mean that when you went off to Oberlin College and he got a job with the street department that you can re-connect in the same level on the other side.  That’s life.  It’s just a matter of whether or not you really believe that ignorance is bliss.  Sometimes it is.

4.  Standing on the precipice of humiliation
Also nothing new.  Remember in the 50’s when Leave It To Beaver type housewives would form gossip networks over the telephone, ruining someone’s squeaky clean image with an embarrassing tale?  Yeah, times haven’t changed much.

5.  You can check out…
Ah, the reconciliation at the end.  As Winda Benedetti points out, she missed a lot of stuff.  A lot of real life stuff.  Was cutting herself off from online networking a good idea?
“One friend recently had a baby and he’s been keeping people up to date on his son’s arrival and the ensuing adorableness by using Facebook and Facebook alone, it seems. Meanwhile, old friends of mine came to town for a visit and then left, but I failed to connect with them because they tried to reach me via Facebook while I was taking my Facebreak. I haven’t seen them in a decade. Now, who knows when I’ll have another chance.”

A common cure suggested for frustration with online networking is “just don’t take it too seriously.”  I totally disagree.  Take the time to use social networking properly – installing privacy filters, controlling your own content, etc. – and you’ll find that it’s not this separate life or identity or time waster, but a valuable communication tool that allows you to stay in touch more conveniently than ever before.  Be smart!

Its a jungle out there.

It's a jungle out there.

I like social media.  Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.  I think it’s a valuable tool for communication, and can even be a source of entertainment.  It’s definitely increased the flow of information between people.  But I don’t think that social media is radically changing the way that people communicate.

As Ivor Tossell points out in his audio piece in this article from Canada’s Globe and Mail, there seems to be an equally ridiculous prevalence of people on both sides of the social media spectrum:  a) the so-called Social Media Experts who are regular people who just really, really like playing on Facebook and Twitter, and b) the Get-off-my-lawn brigade, whose “underlying philosophy is that social networking websites…are one big frivolity and anti-social distraction.”

The dichotomy between the reality of the situation and the drivel that both of these camps spout off brings to mind this GraphJam.com chart about political coverage on television:

US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given

US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given

And just like the never-ending political debate, rational thought is really somewhere in between.

Here’s where I get defensive about social networking.  Because online networking is done in front of a computer, there are those who equate the decline of western civilization to the abundance and prevalence of online friendships.  The hypocritical people who decry social networking practices as information overload or invasive of privacy are often the same ones who shake their heads and grumble about how it’s a shame that people don’t know their neighbors anymore.  How is communicating with an acquaintance on Facebook that different?  As Tossell notes, the get-off-my-lawn camp “…operate[s] on the presumption that online friendships are fraudulent or somehow debased, as opposed to the kind that are maintained over telephones, or nurtured in stoic silence, or maybe those extra-special friendships that are maintained by sending stacks of Christmas letters once a year.”  For the vast majority of us, our online networks are filled with real people who we know and care about at least on some level.  Of course, there are the few people with 10,371 Myspace friends that raise a red flag to the get-off-my-lawn folks.  But really, they’re no different than the guy from the early 80’s with the massive black book of phone numbers:  nobody is taking either of them seriously.

The most common complaint I hear about why Twitter (or any status update) is trivial goes something like “I don’t care that my college buddy in Omaha is making a sandwich.”  (Yet millions of Americans tune in each week and get emotionally tied to the contestants – most of whom the average viewer does not know personally – on American Idol or any other reality show.) Even the most independent of us – I’m definitely included in this camp – still naturally crave a certain level of human interaction.  The behavioral information you pick up about a person – whether through status updates on Facebook or through picking up her subtle body language out of the corner of your eye – pretty much tells you the same thing.  Social scientists refer to it as “ambient awareness,” as defined in Clive Thompson’s New York Times Magazine piece “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” So maybe deep down, on a subconscious level…you do care about your buddy’s sandwich.

So what’s my point in all this?  It’s that there is a point to all of this.  Social networking isn’t radically changing the way that human beings communicate and behave.  It’s simply opening another avenue to allow real people to do what they’re going to do anyway:  group together in little bunches, make friends, socialize, and share their lives with each other.  We’re just doing it a little faster now.