Exploring Facebook: a week in


I set myself the challenge of using Facebook this term, and got started about a week ago. These are my thoughts so far.

Table of Contents

I initially had a horror of Facebook, a creepy repulsion to the way it presents people, and I wanted to see if I could lose that. The answer is, partially. In trying to work out where my unease comes from, I have come to three points, in ascending order of seriousness.

1. Basic Problems of Medium

Facebook works only as well as it transfers information. Typing stuff in English is pretty good as a place to start, so there is not too much to complain about in that sense. You think of something, you type it, and it gets sent to your ‘friends’. The difficulties include firstly that the information sent is often vacuous or inane. What you enter as a status or comment is only as contentful as the thoughts going through your mind at the time, and those thoughts are not fed by a blank screen to stimulate ideas to fill the space, but by a clutter of disjointed snippets. The text people enter is only as good as the surroundings when it is written, so what comes out is usually pretty worthless. This is not a particularly bad problem though in the sense that there is nothing harmful about silliness nor does a status update have to be bad; the site just sets up an environment where they are likely to be.

Secondly, the news feed and walls are highly indiscriminate. They can only filter out stuff from people you don’t see often, rather than do anything which might be more helpful. A lot of information gets chucked at you, most of it not worth knowing, so there is the difficulty of using it effectively. Again, I am trying to spend lots of time on Facebook, so this does not particularly worry me at the moment.

Thirdly, it is too immediate. With no chance of writing draft statuses or delaying them in any way, you just get stuff coming out too quickly. This has bitten me already, and I don’t like media where content is delivered instantly without any way of gauging its response and expanding or correcting what was said.

2. Inaccuracy and Inauthenticity

2.1. Lack of Interaction

It makes me slightly shifty to think about the closeness of like I have with the people in my ‘friends’ list. Without wasting words, we all know little genuine dialogue happens on Facebook. Arguably, that’s not what it’s for, but I put off letters to a couple of people before realising that it only because commenting with them on Facebook had given me a false sense that we were exchanging enough to justify that. Danger.

I could add that this is just the wrong way to find things out. I have found out about several of my friends seeing each other who never mentioned it, and of some who are engaged (one whom I didn’t even know was seeing anyone). News is good to talk about and should be part of what we share together in real life, but Facebook can suck all of that into its system and actually detract from real-life friendships. Talking about things happening to us or doing them together is one of the most wonderful ways to interact personally, but by moving the excitement of first hearing about things onto an impersonal medium, I think a lot is lost. This is therefore one of the things I find most creepy about Facebook, and why I still feel a slight twitch or squirm clicking onto someone’s profile, knowing that what is there is somewhat like my friend, but takes away some of the freshness of ever sharing with him what is there.

2.2. Photos

They say the camera never lies. Actually, it lies most of the time. What photons fall on its sensor it records fine, but it is lousy at capturing the world as we see it. A landscape photo is harmless; you look at the mountain in real life, and it looks fairly sensible, and on the photo, it is as you remembered it. The same shape, mostly the same qualities. The way you think of the mountain is unchanged. A stunning wildlife photograph of an ant is a lie. You can’t see those things on its body in that way; it does not represent the way we work with things. It used to be that writing a letter to the Royal Society about spiders took a long time (cf. Jonathan Edwards’), but now we bypass the process by thinking of ants or insects in terms of these microscopic pictures we have of them, gained with no interaction or investment of our time. Now, that is not necessarily bad, but it is something to be aware of: what inputs are we getting, and how authentic are they?

Facebook photos are lies. Not all of them, but many of them. I might have been sitting right next to the person, I might even be in the photo, without having perceived what is going on in the way that fuzzy, candid phone snap portrays it. I am can’t follow this too far, because I am reasonable and the effect is not great. I do feel it right to raise the issue though that with no experience of photo sharing or viewing before this, this distortion is real and especially noticeable to me. I don’t like it. A posed photo, a group shot, captures exactly what is going on, as the environment is accommodated to the medium, but when that does not happen we can twist the way we relate to our friends; or, if we see too much of them posing again something wholesome and authentic is lost even if the images truly describe what they were doing at the time.

There is one more problem with Facebook images, and that is the galleries. We see our friends wearing different clothes, in different groups, scattered all over the world. Which ones do we click on to enlarge? There is a passive distortion, as some photos jump out at us more, and an active one as we click on some but not others. I am sure you can guess where I am driving with this, firstly in the general disruption of what we value or look out for in our friends, and secondly in the more obvious and very unpleasant sense.

2.3. Excitement

I mentioned earlier my horror of horror of prying and viewing information, and way photos distort what we are looking and hoping for in the instants of interaction with our ‘friends’: a funny photo to make us smile; a quick complaint we sympathise with; a confirmation of or disagreement with something we approve good to make us happy in agreement or self-righteousness? There can be all these and more, and I want to note that in each case they come down to the same point, that of our goals. I have a pretty clear picture of what fellowship could look like, and moving towards that with some friends or sharing aspects of it with others very strongly excites me, but the underlying trend of Facebook could be to subvert our goals by stimulating and exciting us with the wrong things. This is almost too broad to be contain any insight, but it is my preliminary suggestion of what an underlying might be Facebook that gives it such unreality and horrid feel to me.