In the latest New York Review of Books, Charles Petersen has an interesting and even-handed analysis of Facebook and social networking:
What many find most enticing about Facebook is the steady stream of updates from “friends,” new and old, which sociologists refer to as “ambient awareness.” This is not a new phenomenon: everyone from our Cro-Magnon ancestors to Jane Austen has known how it feels to be surrounded by the constant chatter of other people. Facebook’s continuing attraction comes from its ability to reduce the Internet’s worldwide chatter to the size of a college, or a village, or a living room. But it is this very old form of sociability, transferred into the electronic age, that, rather than targeted ads or aesthetic monotony, some members find troubling about the site. As the writer William Deresiewicz, by far the most eloquent critic of Facebook, recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
We have turned [our friends] into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud…. Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling.
Personally, I don’t get Facebook. I really enjoy Twitter – I like the intellectual intimacy with strangers, and getting to curate my informational surprises – but Facebook always struck me as a perfect example of too much information. I’m sure the fault is mine, or at the very least generational: I’m just a little too old to have interwoven my social life with my online social network during college. Back then, we were still relying on email…
I remain suspicious, however, of anyone who argues that online social networks, like Facebook, will revolutionize human interactions. Whenever I encounter some utopian celebration of Facebook, I always go back and read some Jane Goodall, or Robert Sapolsky, and remind myself that our social lives haven’t changed that much since we were hairy apes patrolling the African forest. In fact, the most obvious parallel for just about every primate troop remains high school. It’s not that Facebook doesn’t matter – it’s just that our social lives are stubborn things, and tend to revolve around the same constants regardless of the technology. I wrote about this recently in my Wired profile of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler:
Once upon a time, social interaction was bounded by space; we met only in person. But then communication became mediated by technology. From telegraph to telephone to email to Twitter, each innovation fed the same anxieties, as people worried that traditional forms of community were being destroyed. The telephone was ruining family life; we’re neglecting our real friends for our so-called friends on Facebook.
But does technology actually change the nature of the social network? Or does it simply extend it? It has long been recognized, for instance, that the human capacity for close friendship is remarkably consistent. People from cultures throughout the world report between four and seven bosom buddies. “The properties of our social networks are byproducts of evolution,” Christakis says. “The assumption has been that our mind can handle only so many other people.”
On Facebook, though, the average user has approximately 110 “friends,” which has led some scientists to speculate that the Web is altering the very nature of human networks. For the first time in history, we can keep track of hundreds of people. The computer, they say, is helping to compensate for the limitations of the brain.
But Christakis and Fowler were skeptical of such claims. They knew that social habits are stubborn things. So they persuaded a university to let them analyze the Facebook pages of its students, devising a clever way to distinguish between casual friends and deeper emotional connections. Close friends, they hypothesized, would post pictures of one another on their Facebook pages, since the relationship wasn’t purely virtual.
After analyzing thousands of photos, the scientists found that, on average, each student had 6.6 close friends in their online network. In other words, nothing has really changed; even the most fervent Facebook users still maintain only a limited circle of intimates.
“On Facebook, you’ve got a few close friends and lots of people you barely know,” Fowler says. “Because the cost of information transmission is so low”–that is, the site makes it easy to communicate–“we end up staying in touch with more acquaintances. But that doesn’t mean we have more friends.”
The point is that even if Facebook transforms our “online friends” into a vast, nameless cloud, we still count on our real life social circle for support.
PS. On a related note, Vaughan Bell has a fascinating summary of media technology scares in Slate.