I got an email from my friend Sharon this morning. She had recently signed up for a Facebook account and had just been “friended” by someone she didn’t know very well. Actually, she didn’t know him at all. She asked something like, “So who is he? Is he a creep? What does he want?” Then, she added, “And since when is ‘friend’ a verb?”
For those of us who work in the digital space and have readily embraced online social media tools like Facebook, it’s easy to brush off
I’m concerned with something more fundamental and frailer than that: a sense of having my emotional privacy eroded, and a sense that the level of intimacy I have with my Facebook folks—and they have with me—is not in my control. Facebook has changed the rules.
Facebook, if you haven’t taken a spin there, is an online network with some 62 million active users. It bills itself as a “social utility” that connects people with friends as well as those who work, go to school, share interests with and live around them. You can use Facebook to keep up with friends, learn more about them, see who they are networked with—along with fun stuff like upload photos, share links and videos, and join groups, both professional and not-so. Facebook is a mix of social and professional, serious and silly—kind of like our lives in the real world.
Right now, I have close to 400 friends on my Facebook profile page. At the start of my romp through Facebook, I was like Dorothy approaching the
Interestingly, what I love about Facebook is also what I’m starting to hate about it. Six months ago, it felt fun to amass lots of contacts, be back in touch with old friends, see the degrees of separation between this person and that one. I love that I have all my friends and contacts in one living, limitless, connected digital Rolodex. (Well, at least the ones who have set up Facebook profiles.)
Incredibly, for example, I bumped into a boy I went to Junior High with. He’s a man now, and lives on the other side of the country—and even though we haven’t talked for 30 years, he happens to know a lot of the people I’ve come to know. How weird is that?
Then I caught up with a college roommate who moved from
It’s moments like those that I sometimes pause and think about how impossible any of this would be without the tremendous gift that is the Digital Age, and I say a silent prayer of thanks for living now and not, say, when all we had to communicate with was a nub of charcoal and the inside of a cave.
But there’s a flip side to all of this glorious connectivity. First, my teenage son has a Facebook page, and I’ve bumped into him and his friends a few times. I want the kid to have his privacy (within, you know, limits), so I always politely turn aside like I didn’t actually see him, sort of like if I accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom.
I’ve also occasionally bumped into an old boyfriend on Facebook. Although it’s been years since I saw him (which is a decidedly good thing), it seems that we still are in touch with some of the same people. So, small windows that I had shut and bolted long ago are briefly pried opened. Do I want to know that he and his new girlfriend went to see Cloverfield? No. But, at the same time, when you drive by an old flame, it’s hard not to rubberneck.
I’m not the only one who has seen the darker side of connectivity. My friend Shelley masks her geographical location on Facebook so that a creepy ex-husband can’t put too fine a point on it. My friend Eileen was contacted out of the blue by someone she’d rather not be in touch with, who found her (guess how!) on Facebook.
danah boyd, who studies social networks at UC Berkeley, calls this “context management.” In other words, it’s suddenly work to manage the context of your online “profile,” which, oddly, seems to take on a life of its own.
Social networking sites can be all fun and games and connections. But, at the same time, they make you consider some fundamental issues of intimacy, access, and personal privacy—or lack thereof. It’s work to manage your privacy settings and requests for access to your life, personal and professional. It’s work to think about who sees you and how they see you and who you see… and it’s often, as danah says, flat-out “unfun”:
It sucks for teens trying to balance mom and friends. It sucks for college students trying to have a social life and not piss off their profs. It sucks for 20-somethings trying to date and balance their boss’s presence.
And, increasingly, it sucks for all of us, too, who are somewhere north of 20-ish.