Davis Essay 1

Facebook: The Silent Social Changes

Introduction

Facebook was originally launched in early 2004, but for many of its early years its influence was limited to a selective user base, which prevented it from having a broader social impact. Once it expanded beyond Harvard students to all Ivy League colleges, and then to all college students, only then did its influence begin to be felt. The past two to three years have seen a drastic rise in Facebook users, as well as a significant increase in the number of activities and amount of time users spend interacting through the site. While Facebook is among the emerging social media tools that are helping to shape and redefine the way in which people interact with one another, there is a darker, seedier side to what the Facebook experience is introducing into peoples lives. Facebook is not only a communication tool; it is an evolutionary stage in communication media. Like the printing press, telephone, television, and internet before it, the process of introducing new forms of communication comes with strings attached. New questions and conflicts will arise as Facebook attempts to digitize every aspect of individuality and human relationships. However, one thing users often overlook is the implicit price that this technology and communication medium comes at. By digitizing ourselves, we become vulnerable to a number of social dilemmas that we have thus far been able to avoid, and will be forced to revisit a few conflicts that we thought had been overcome.

New Social Elitism

Perhaps one of the greatest conflicts to arise as a result of Facebook history was the registration requirement change made in 2006 that only requires a user to be over the age of 13. Despite the fact this change was made over three years ago, it still seems to have a great deal of opposition originating from Facebook’s original core audience – college students. From a business perspective, the change was necessary: allowing a wide demographic allows it to (re)connect a wider range of people, and serve as a universal social networking tool. The implication of this, that many quickly realized to be a reality, is that it allowed younger siblings and parents to enter the previously gated community of Facebook, and forced users to rethink their digital personas. On the one hand, refusing to befriend your relatives would doubtlessly not sit well with them, but on the other hand, there are an abundance of embarrassing and implicating pictures and information in many people’s profiles that would almost certainly be used against them if they fell into the hands of family.

Additional consideration had to be taken, since employers can and did begin using Facebook information as a tool to check up on the background of potential employees, and the behavior and activities of current employees. From a practical point of view, this brought a higher level of honesty, integrity, and accountability to anything posted in Facebook. That doesn't seem to be the way college users see it however – they see it as a form of betrayal and degradation of “their” community. The fact of the matter is that Facebook can be a valuable networking tool for older and younger audiences as well. The sense of entitlement of longer standing members seems to be that of “if I can’t have it the way I want, then maybe I’ll just quit,” though only time will tell if users make good on these threats or are just spouting hot air. At the core of this conflict are some very unsettling details that suggest that segregation based on age is very prevalent in our society, despite our perceived efforts to stamp out other forms of segregation based on gender and race. A good example of this is Facebook competitor MySpace, which is generally believed among the Facebook community to be targeted towards and generally more appropriate for younger users — something of a “separate but equal” situation, despite the fact that college-age Facebook users would never consider transitioning to MySpace themselves.

The End of Time (Management)

There is a misconception about younger generations, and that is that they are able handle multiple tasks simultaneously better than older generations. There is some truth to this stipulation: when presented with handling multiple tasks concurrently, younger generations do seem more able to stay on top of and progress these tasks at the same rate. The confusion about the multitasking aptitude of youth is likely the result of the Internet and digital age, where the technology both allows and requires users to assimilate and respond to information at alarmingly fast rates. The unspoken implication of this factual tidbit is that multitasking is the ideal alternative to handling tasks one at a time, and that the tasks are completed to the same standards, albeit at a much faster rate when handled via multitasking. Experience and data seem to suggest that this is a necessary evil in the modern era – the sacrifice of accuracy in exchange for improved speed.

The truth is that human multitasking and computer multitasking have a great deal of structural similarity. The way in which computers multitask is not by being able to do all the tasks at exactly the same time — that is merely an illusion. Computers can only handle one task at a time, even if they have multiple processing cores, each core can still only handle one task at a time. But the way in which they multitask is to quickly process and switch between small segments of multiple tasks, so that all tasks progress at roughly the same rate (potentially altered by priority of the task), and thus giving the illusion of simultaneous completion, as a result of the sheer speed of the swapping between tasks. In truth, humans do the same thing: our minds can only fully concentrate on one thing at a time; we have just become more attuned to being able to put one task on hold and swap to another, only to return to the first after a time. The problem with this is that not putting the full power of our attention to one task until completion may have an impact on the quality and accuracy of our results. For example, a student is in class (presumably trying to learn), and has brought their computer to take notes on. Let’s say that the student receives an important time-sensitive email and decides to respond immediately to it. The suggestion that the student can listen, take notes, process and respond to the email — all simultaneously — is almost insulting. One or more of these tasks is bound to suffer as a result of concentration on another one. Now translate this situation to every moment of a person’s life and you have the sort of changes that are facing society as a result of the supposed blessed gifts of modern technology.

Privacy and Disclosure

A long time ago when communities were smaller and more tightly knit, the expectations for privacy were almost unheard of. As the sheer number of people concentrated in a certain region grew, it became easier to blend in with the crowd, and more difficult to know everything about everyone. But along with the digital revolution, not only did the sheer volume of information increase, but the ability for someone to search and sort the information and pick out only what they were interested in. Facebook followed a similar evolutionary path, with increasingly amounts of information available to greater and greater audiences. And at some point measures for privacy were added, that allowed a user to pick and choose what information is available to what people.
A model based on increasing complexity and disclosure makes a certain degree of sense, since users are able to decide who their friend is, and how they want to shape their network of relationships. The problem with this of course is that once you allow someone else, even one person, to access information about you (and in the case of Facebook and social media, its no insubstantial amount), you lose some of your ability to dictate what happens with that information.

Keeping secrets and the spread of rumors often result from this same sort of complication. Also, it seems like a somewhat unreasonable set of conflicting (almost paradoxical) set of desires: to have some people know things about you and others not, but the tipping point being that we’re talking about the Internet. The entire design of the web is to disclose information and spread it as broadly as possible, and at the same time, Web 2.0 experiences feel a lot more like gated communities. Eventually the push and pull of this will have to have a clear winner – it’s difficult to have a social network when each user isolates themselves from potentially large parts of the network. The result might be a very clear indicator of what our future values will be: individualism and privacy, or communication and community.

E-Friendship

Facebook has begun to drastically alter the concept of friendship. In the past, this concept relied on frequent communication and interaction between two individuals (or perhaps small groups of individuals). Facebook is essentially trying to entirely revise the concept and rewrite it as a much less personal experience. In an age where people are becoming much more distant as a result of technology, Facebook is only building upon that problem instead of trying to reverse its effects. While it’s true that Facebook is connecting people and bringing them together in communication in a much more frequent basis, it is also making these interactions smaller and much less personal. Facebook’s typical communication is the result of one-liners indirectly transmitted via a user’s wall, private messages, or status updates. To be fair, the versatility and constant expansion of Facebook have introduced a wider range of interaction to users (for example, various games and apps that users frequently use and share with their friends), but it has yet to be seen if these bridge the gap Facebook has created in human interaction.

At the root of the problem is Facebook's apparent definition of friendship. To the creators and controllers of Facebook, friendship is something that can happen when you’ve merely heard of someone (or potentially with a complete stranger), and can be sealed with a few keystrokes or the click of a button, and can be undone just as easily. And what is the requirement for staying friends and maintaining friendships? Well, technically there is none, though you might occasionally spend a few moments learning about their interests and finding out what they’ve been up to – all indirectly of course. The problem with friendship and Facebook is that it is all passive – neither party has to ever actually communicate with one another to create or maintain a friendship. And while the Internet is a realm that is drastically different from the physical realm, the bottom line is that the physical realm is the dominant one.

Conclusion

The world does not exist in black and white, and there's no such thing as an exclusively positive or negative impact. There are always strings attached, and every stone skipped on the water creates ripples. The conflict experienced in the modern age with the struggle to integrate technology into our lives and find out what sort of future we want to shape using our knowledge is no exception. The best thing we can do is acknowledge the implications and side effects of progress, so that we can better shape our future towards what we want it to be. The main problem with progress seems to be that people are willing to abdicate their decisions to others, and allow others to steer their course and make their decisions. The worst thing a person can do is not be mindful of their surroundings and circumstances, and not just let life wash over and away from them. The concern with Facebook is that it seems strictly positive and harmless, but the subconscious changes its making in its users is actually much less clear cut than that.

References

The Negative Effects of Facebook
Facebook: Watching the Watchers

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