The Frontal Cortex

Facebook Friends

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.

Comments

  1. #1 james moffat
    February 15, 2010

    “but Facebook always struck me as a perfect example of too much information”

    one way to cut down on the crazy information overload on facebook is a browser addon called “Facebook Purity” it hides all the application message spam, and also extraneous information like “x joined group y”, “x became a fan of page y, “x is no friends with y” etc the options are configurable as to how much extra info you wish to hide, you can also “whitelist” applications whose messages you do want to see.

  2. #2 james moffat
    February 15, 2010

    oops, forgot to put the link: http://www.fbpurity.com
    theres also a fan page for it here: http://facebook.com/fbpurity

  3. #3 nick gogerty
    February 15, 2010

    The Dunbar number is at play here among other factors. The human animal has a normal and finite capacity for most unique social traits, love, death, socialization and intimacy. Having wider communication mediums doesn’t necessarily make us more robust, but does allow us to have wider choices, than our geographically constrained predecessors. yes I was an antrhopology undergrad :) years ago.

    The human capacity to feel evolved years ago and hasn’t inately changed, but the medium in which it expresses itself has become richer and more varied.

  4. #4 Kevin Boulas
    February 15, 2010

    A great post. I think the tendency is to buy into the hype cycle and see something in its early stages as revolutionary, when in fact we always seem to adapt technology to our uses, rather than adapt ourselves to technology. Communication and information are wonderful things, if managed properly, but I don’t think it is possible for them to change our essential “human-ness.”

    Kevin

  5. #5 Donna B.
    February 15, 2010

    I’m not quick enough, witty enough, or interested enough to spend time deciphering Twitters. To me, it’s like trying to follow all the conversations in a crowded bar.

    Facebook gives me the opportunity to keep up with people important to me, but not necessarily my very best friends. Extended family that I might only hear about at infrequent family reunions are now available as if we all still lived near “home”. Sort of bringing the tribe back together.

  6. #6 MLO
    February 15, 2010

    You’re not the only one who “doesn’t get facebook”. While I
    have a facebook page, the time I spend logged in is minimal at best
    My reasons for avoiding it, however, are more practical: it is difficult
    to compose honest updates under my real identity with the knowlege that
    anyone can read them.

  7. #7 Neela
    February 16, 2010

    I wonder if Facebook has in fact reduced the average number of close friends to less than 6/7 – i.e. an increase in the size of acquaintances leads to a decrease in the size of close relationships

  8. #8 Rob Monkey
    February 16, 2010

    You don’t get FB, but you use Twitter? I’m no huge FB nut, but Twitter? I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would want to hear 140 characters of Ashton Kutcher. Actually my real puzzler is why Twitter is any different than facebook status updates, except it seems much more popular among politicians who don’t have anyone to filter their idiotic comments. A few bloggers I like have Twitter accounts; it’s basically an RSS feed of their blog, so I might as well have just gone to their website.

  9. #9 `Dacks
    February 16, 2010

    James, Thanks for the link. I just installed the FBPurity script.

    Rob, I’m with you – puzzled about the Twitter attraction. The interaction on Facebook seems much more personal. Although, I don’t really go to Facebook to talk to “friends”; I’m more inclined to use it as a way to bounce ideas around.

  10. #10 social network design
    February 16, 2010

    Facebook created a diverse stream of social activities and with a little data mining and business intelligence skills.

  11. #11 Lara
    February 16, 2010

    Twitter? Really??? I thought that was for celebrity stalking. My Google Reader and its ability to share articles and blogs and your thoughts on various issues is my time for “intellectual intimacy” with strangers (and friends).

    Facebook for me is useful as a lot my family and friends live overseas- coming from a family that seems to enjoy travel, Facebook and Skype have been godsends (when I compare my situation with my grandmother who moved across the equator and therefore did not see her family for over 20 years).

    Face to face interaction is always better, but Facebook has its uses. I would never deem it as something that is revolutionising human interaction; I think it’s more aligned with the modern day equivalent of penpals.

  12. #12 sciencegoddess
    February 16, 2010

    I have to agree with Jonah. My Facebook is full of family members and even former students, and that’s fine but I visit only infrequently. Twitter for me is full of many like-minded science communicators and science enthusiasts who understand what I’m trying to do with science outreach. It is a source of news stories (science and otherwise) I might otherwise miss just by trawling the web on my own.

  13. #13 scott hirsch
    February 17, 2010

    i’m wondering if you enjoy Twitter for broadcast (AKA self-promotion) or for listening (AKA time killing).

    If it’s the former, it’s because you have something interesting to say and people who care to listen. If it’s the latter, you must screen out the shameless self-marketers and self-promoters (or else you find them interesting).

    Twitter is a schizophrenic medium because of this dualism. It is in no way collaborative or conversational. I barely call it social. It’s actually quite narcissistic. It’s like carrying a megaphone to a cocktail party.

    On the other hand, Facebook can be much more accessible, frivolous, and intimate. It’s the cocktail party.

  14. #14 Kevin Vogelsang
    February 17, 2010

    “we end up staying in touch with more acquaintances”

    This is said as a statement for writing off Facebook and social networking.

    But this is actually very powerful. While the number of close friends may stay constant for people, it may shift over time. Those acquaintances can become friends when we go through changes.

    Furthermore, don’t forget the power of the Law of Reciprocity. If you’re able to stay in touch with someone, no matter the level of the relationship, you’re better able to help them out sometime or reach out in positive ways. This will then be returned at some point.

    100s of acquaintances can be a huge benefit and should not be written off as being of negligible value.

  15. #15 Spectral
    February 17, 2010

    I don’t post photos of my Facebook friends to Facebook, I just post them to Flickr with my other photos. Facebook only has support for low resolution, and I was already in the habit of posting photos to Flickr. Some of my closest friends are now living in different states, so it’s not like I would be going around taking photos of them anyway.

  16. #16 Alison
    February 18, 2010

    I don’t recall when they added this feature, but Facebook allows you to hide people from your news stream. Before that, I admit, I found it overwhelming, but now I enjoy dipping into various streams at my own discretion, depending on where my inclinations lie. Sometimes some friends are more compelling than others… and then sometimes you want to change it up. Nobody, at least none of my friends, expects you to be intimately following their every post, so there’s no pressure to take it all in. For me, it’s like walking into a cafe frequented by a number of people with whom I have ongoing relationships, and would therefore be more compelled to interact with. It’s a comforting thing, seeing as so many of the people I care about live in other cities.

    It’s also a great way to meet friends of friends without having to suffer the dullness of small talk at cocktail parties. I just added someone yesterday, whom I met through a conversation on a friend’s wall. It’s easier, I find, to have more absorbing conversations on Facebook than it is to have them on Twitter, because the comments boxes give you the space to really expand an idea. Last summer, I developed the habit of poaching links off of Twitter and posting them on Facebook for discussion. The practice seems to have opened up new dialogues with people in my orbit which likely wouldn’t have started otherwise, including the one that connected me with a classmate I’ve now fallen in love with.

    I think it’s true that people whose lives are already full of chatter and closeness don’t really need Facebook, but I personally have found it useful in overcoming a number of social difficulties.

  17. #17 ShimmeringShack
    February 19, 2010

    Great article. I found it by clicking on a link tweeted by one of my favorite Twitter users, who I have never met, & who doesn’t follow me…..

    I find it interesting that people commenting here seem to be very passionate about their favorite sites. I personally prefer Twitter to Facebook, but I use them for different things. For me, Facebook is better for locating & keeping in touch with people I know, while Twitter is a better medium for finding people with common interests & ideas. If I’m really interested I’ll find out more on their blog or website.

    This is just how I choose to use these sites, though. I hadn’t thought of Facebook as a way to “bounce ideas around” before. I’ll have to look into that…..

  18. #18 Jess
    February 19, 2010

    I always think that criticism of facebook is a little ridiculous. To me it’s like saying “blogging is bad.” Isn’t all to do with what one makes of it and how one uses it? (I also think people really love to hate it and so get overly Baudrillard-esque in their soliloquies against it).

  19. #19 Hilal bin Ali Al-Ismaily
    March 2, 2010

    It is not surprising to note that Charles Darwin suffered deppresion. Why didn’t he evolve to a happier creature? This is one of the strongest evidence that his theory is false. He had no control of what he felt. No intelligent person would like to live a life of misery. We all pursue the road to a happiness, whatever the cost, but happiness looks a far distant dream or mirrage. No happiness without faith, listed to what Quran says below.
    This is also one of great evidence that the Quran is infallible word of God. In the Quran it is mentioned in the Chapter 20 verse 123-124 the following:
    123. He said: “Get ye down, Both of you-all together,from the Garden, with enmity one to another: but if, as is sure, there comes to you Guidance from Me, whosover follows my guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall into misery.”

    124.”But whosover turns away from my message,verily for him is a life narrowed down (miserable life), and we shall raise him up blind on the day of judgement.”

  20. #20 RMA
    March 18, 2010

    i just read the William Deresiewicz article referenced at the beginning of this writing. wow. you weren’t kidding at all. that’s one hell of a writing on a topic that usually only gets base level critiquing. thanks for that. while i’m at it, thanks to you, too, for writing at all. it is a pleasure.

  21. #21 Visualize
    April 14, 2010

    I use facebook, and to be honest my relationships with acquaintances has not changed I still don’t talk to them, and my close friends are on there too and I never talk to them either so I don’t think anything has really changed. but maybe that is my fault for not engaging.

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  23. #23 Mike
    July 20, 2010

    I use Twitter to gather information on topics that interest me. I use Facebook to critique, advocate and distribute information that I believe is important or that I find fascinating. Facebook needn’t be used as an interface for distributing gossip or discussing the intimate details of one’s life or playing interactive games. One can “hide” posts by “friends” who typically make posts that hold little interest (and they’ll never know). And it’s much easier on Facebook than on Twitter to render a coherent opinion on an article or video that you want to share. Facebook, if used in this way, serves as a sort of middle ground between Tweeting tidbits and Blogging full meals.

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  38. Facebook is the equivalent of a conversation on the sidewalk. You never know which of your acquaintances will stroll up and join the conversation and it is impossible to have a private conversation on a social networking site, so do it elsewhere.

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  39. One wonders if the people who code Facebook actually use it themselves!? Maybe they just don’t have any friends… No NO No……. yeah!!

    Uhhhmm, great idea to have extra security measures like this, but why not just ask the user to come up with the extra security question to answer himself? Like so many other services do?. Like – name of first pet, mother’s favourite food, movie that changed my life, whatever.

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