In honor of the recent release of the remake of Brideshead Revisited, I thought it might be interesting to revisit FaceBook. I’ve been using FaceBook for nearly a month now and my feelings about it have evolved just as Charles Ryder’s feelings about Brideshead evolved. (Don’t think too much about the analogy between Brideshead and FaceBook–it doesn’t really fit very well.)
You may recall that my initial reactions to FaceBook were all about freaking out. I was especially overwhelmed by the amount of information that FaceBook was sending me via email. I knew that I had the option to turn some of those emails off but as a new user, I was unsure about which ones it made sense to turn off. I ended up turning them all off. So I no longer receive any notifications about FaceBook in my email inbox. Instead, I just receive the notifications of various updates within FaceBook itself. I guess as a new user I had been worried about missing something but I realized that I wouldn’t miss anything if I got notified within FaceBook. Since I visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, my notification of FaceBook happenings is not as immediate as if I were getting email updates. But I don’t want immediate notification of what’s going on in FaceBook. Instead, I want to be able to control when I receive those notifications. In other words, I want to receive them when I’m interested in knowing what’s going on in FaceBook. That is, I want to know what’s happening in FaceBook when I visit FaceBook! Perfect.
Although I do visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, I have been visiting FaceBook several times per week. This surprises me because my initial reaction to the social environment was not a particularly positive one. But now that I am not being overwhelmed by information from FaceBook, I have mostly enjoyed using it. In fact, I find it to be somewhat addicting. I’ve been thinking a lot about why and although I don’t have any answers about that question, I do have some observations.
I currently have 43 “friends” on FaceBook. Of these, there are probably 20 who are quite active, posting something or interacting with me several times a week. I am most interested in the activities and communications of about 8 of these 20 active friends. I think it’s because of these 8 that I visit FaceBook as often as I do. What do these people have in common? These are all people that I actually am good friends with in real life or that I could imagine being good friends with if our real life circumstances were to change. Even though I still find the use of the word “friend” problematic in FaceBook, the way we understand the word in real life is similar to the way it actually plays out in my use of FaceBook.
One of the most interesting aspects of FaceBook so far has been the way in which I “communicate” with most of my friends. Very little of our interaction is directly targeted at each other. That is, most of my friends do not post communications that are meant for me in particular. Instead, they update some part of their FaceBook profile (such as their status) to tell all of their friends what they are currently doing. I then read that information and find it interesting because I then know a little bit more about their daily lives. It’s a way of touching base that would not happen without FaceBook and as a result, we get to know each other a little bit better. And because I already like them in real life, I want to get to know them a little bit better. In other words, the immediacy (the focus on “now”) of FaceBook, which felt so problematic when I first joined, is actually something I enjoy and look forward to. What’s different between when I first joined and now that makes me enjoy the immediacy? I think the main difference is that I have now gotten my FaceBook life “caught up” with my real life. What do I mean by “caught up”?
The rhetoric of FaceBook assumes that life begins when you join the social network. So you are “now” friends with someone you’ve known for a long time simply because FaceBook “now” knows about that relationship. Each time you add some detail about your life to FaceBook, the rhetoric reminds you that your life has “now” begun, that everything before either didn’t exist or was somehow not quite “real”. The feeling that your FaceBook life is more “real” than your BFB (Before FaceBook) life is disconcerting. But once you get the details in to your profile, FaceBook has “caught up” to your actual life and so the things that you do in FaceBook really are happening “now”. So for me, the rhetoric no longer feels like a mismatch with my “reality”. Now that my FaceBook life is more closely aligned with my real life, I appreciate the “nowness” of FaceBook. The “nowness” means I’m learning current tidbits about these friends of mine.
Although most of my friends and I interact in this indirect manner, reading each other’s general updates, there is one friend with whom I have had an ongoing direct conversation. This friend is an ex-partner of mine with whom I have maintained inconsistent email contact for the past 15+ years (since our break-up). Now that we are both on FaceBook, we have been using its messaging system to engage in a long, intimate conversation. The messaging system is similar to email but because it is embedded in FaceBook, I also get to see the frequent (or infrequent, depending on the friend) updates that my friends make to their profiles. And so when a friend posts a new photo or a link she finds interesting, I can see those things which contextualizes our FaceBook messages in a way that isn’t easily accomplished via email. So far, this long conversation with my ex has been the most surprising aspect of FaceBook for me. Until I experienced how different this kind of direct contextualized communication via FaceBook is compared to regular email, I wouldn’t have believed that it would matter so much. The other interesting thing about this aspect of FaceBook is that although I’ve enjoyed our online communication, I am not tempted to meet in real life for a face-to-face conversation about the break-up or about our current lives (both of which are topics in our online conversation). FaceBook provides a useful buffer, or maybe it’s a cover, without which I’m not sure I would be comfortable enough to keep the conversation going.
Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is why FaceBook has captured my attention in a way that the other social networking environments I’ve joined (MySpace and LinkedIn, for example) have not. My nephew is on MySpace and so I’ve spent some time communicating with him there. But I find these other environments far less compelling than FaceBook. One reason, I’m sure, is because most of my friends, the ones I’m interested in communicating with, are using FaceBook rather than these other environments. But I think the main reason is that FaceBook makes it extraordinarily easy to find and communicate with people you know. When I joined FaceBook, it immediately suggested some people that I might know. Once I was friends with some of those people, it used their friends to suggest other people I might know. In contrast, on MySpace, I had to think about who I might know there, coming up with their names out of the blue. In addition, when I tried to find my nephew on MySpace, I had to weed through several pages of people with the same name, despite the fact that his friends are mostly from Goffstown NH (where he lives) and the fact that I went to Goffstown High School. It seems like it would be a simple matter to do some sort of matching to determine which Kyle LeBlanc I might be interested in connecting with. This is actually somewhat of a problem in FaceBook as well although my nephew was at least on the first page of many pages of Kyle LeBlancs. He should, I think, have been the first Kyle LeBlanc shown to me in both MySpace and FaceBook.
I also think it’s easier to communicate with your friends in a way that feels most comfortable and appropriate on FaceBook than it is on the other social networks. For example, my nephew and I were both on MySpace at the same time last night. I wanted to chat with him but in order to do so, I had to install a separate application (MySpace IM with Skype). On the other hand, the chat facility is built into the basic FaceBook interface so there’s no extra installation required. I appreciate that extra ease of use in FaceBook.
I still think there are some interesting problems with FaceBook but overall, I have been happy with my experience there. Time will tell whether it’s the newness of the tool that keeps me going back or whether it will become something I will wonder how I could have ever lived without.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.