With all the hullaballoo surrounding Facebook’s IPO, it has me wondering: what is the real impact of the site? I mean, sure, it has made a fair few twenty-somethings richer than God, including a graffiti artist, but what about the rest of us? What has Facebook meant for the roughly 850 million of us who spend so much of our time each day on the site?
I will not here get into the debate into whether it increases productivity, or decreases it. Nor am I interested, at this point at least, in whether or not it is truly worth its $100 billion price tag. What I want to know is with its ubiquity, from high school students all the way up to grandparents (disclosure - my own 80-year-old grandparents are not yet on the site, but my grandmother recently purchased an ipad, so I am sure it is only a matter of time), what has Facebook’s impact been when it comes to its original purpose? After all, social media was created to socialize right?
Recent studies have shown that, at least partially due to Facebook and sites like it (Google+, Orkut, etc.), there is greater connectivity in the world today than ever before. In fact, the “6 degrees of separation” we have come to know, is now down to less than 5. Also, no doubt contributing to this, we are individually connected to more people than ever before. By its latest count, the average number of “friends” a person has on Facebook has climbed to 190 in 2011, up from 120 only two years earlier (Everyone with more than 200 friends, guess what! You're popular! At least on Facebook!) With this multitude of increased connections, you are bound to come across anecdotes of people connecting or reconnecting with people they would not otherwise have been in touch with, but are very happy that they now are. In fact you're going to come across one right now. Several years ago my wife found a friend of hers from high school on Facebook whom she had not seen or spoken to in years. That friend has since become one of our best friends, to the point that she and her husband are both now included in family events, and we frequently vacation with them. Without the wonders of Facebook, we might never have connected with the couple, and our lives would have been poorer for it.
But beyond my own personal story, Facebook has become a tool used throughout society, enriching and enabling social connections for a vast number of people. Want to know a little bit more about that girl or guy before you ask her on a date or tell him yes? Just Facebook him or her. See who else he is connected to, where he went to school, how old he is, and if the photos are up, what he did last weekend. Want to find your best friend from fourth grade who moved away and you haven’t heard from in years? Search for him on Facebook, see what he is up to. I’m sure he’d be happy to hear from you! Not sure about that prospective employee you just interviewed? Give his Facebook profile a once over to see what he does in his spare time.
And if all of this active searching around for people is too aggressive for you, Facebook is a great tool for passively keeping up with people as well, e.g., if you want to see the pictures of the new baby, but don’t want to brave its incessant crying.
With all this increased quantity in connectivity, however, it raises a question about quality. Surely increasing the sheer number of connections does not necessarily mean they are better, does it? In fact, assuming there is only so much sociability any one person has to spread around, any increase in the number of connections must surely lead to a shallowing in those connections more broadly. At one point you were focused on a small group of “friends.” When you met them, you looked them in the eye, gave them your full attention, you were truly “there” for them. Now it isn’t even just when you are at your computer that your mind is elsewhere. Even as your friend tells you about her recent date or breakup or losing her job, that smartphone in your pocket is itching to tell you what all of your other “friends” are doing or thinking at this very moment.
The addition of the Facebook newsfeed has only exacerbated this problem. We are now inundated with information that must necessarily crowd out other information, and frequently this information forcing itself into our minds is not the sort we actually want or care about. My wife constantly complains about the boring updates certain of her Facebook “friends” post. And yet, as easy as it would be to block them, or even to take the nuclear option of defriending them, she fails to do either, continuing to fill her head with the mundane details of near strangers’ lives.
Besides crowding our heads with seemingly worthless information, there has also been a questionable impact on our social skills. As mentioned above, Facebook gives you the ability to vet that person before you ask her out, but honestly, could you ever see Don Draper stooping so low? Could you see Don, Old Fashioned in hand, lowering himself to sending a girl a Facebook message, writing on her wall, or God forbid, poking her? With our increased social media skills, have our face-to-face social skills atrophied?
What it All Means
It is dangerous to make predictions about the future, especially the not-so-distant future, since you can by proven wrong so quickly, so I will start with what it doesn’t mean. None of this is meant to suggest that you should completely unplug and return to some pre-wired Utopia. For one, doing so on your own would be futile. Even if you unplug, so long as everyone around you stays on, their interactions with you aren't going to get deeper or more meaningful. Either you will end up resenting them for it, or you'll just give the same relationship shallowness back in the end, but with a whole lot more effort on your part since you'll no longer have the aid of the modern social media tools at others’ disposal.
I suppose you could attempt to convince your friends to unplug en masse. Gather a core group and all at once pull yourselves from Facebook and the rest. But thinking through it, how would you even go about proposing such a thing? As soon as you do, you will be immediately labeled as the kind of person who responds to text messages with a call (i.e., a stalker), and you will just chase them away rather than bringing them any closer.
No, that ship has sailed. The new world has its advantages, and it has its disadvantages. You can take actions to maximize one and minimize the other, but the only thing to be said overall is that our social interactions have changed, and will likely only continue to do so, and at a quickening pace. Let’s see where it takes us. Besides, maybe despite the ever growing number of “friends,” the way we interact with those with whom we are closest may not have actually changed that much after all.