Connected or Disconnected?
Since Facebook started in 2004, it has generated over 800 million users, connecting friends, family, old lovers, colleagues and even entire businesses around the world. With the average user spending 55 minutes per day on the site, we are really just beginning to understand the effects it is having on society—both good and bad. Clearly, Facebook has become a platform from which to launch, maintain and develop social ties. On the one hand, it allows us to communicate in ways that were never before possible, but on the other hand, it alters the quality of face-to-face relationships. Though we may be connected all the time, we may be more disconnected than ever before.
Facebook has revolutionized the meaning of friendship. At one time, friendship required the emotional bonding of two people—a connection that took place over a period of time, but now friendship has been transformed into a verb, as in, “friending,” or “to friend someone.” With the click of two buttons (one for the request of friendship and one for its acceptance) we can collect another member into our social circle. Some users collect hundreds and even thousands of friends. David Smallwood, an addictions expert based in London blames Facebook for what he calls, “friendship addiction,” saying that the problem with Facebook is that it’s all about acquisition.
British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, theorized in 1992 that the average human being is capable of maintaining stable social relationships with approximately 150 people. This number was developed based on studies that examined group size among primates comparative to the size of the brain’s neocortex. Dunbar found that this part of the brain is only capable of handling so many interpersonal relationships.
More recently, though, Dunbar wondered if social networking sites like Facebook were causing that number to grow. In a 2010 study, he concluded that the number was still the same and although people had more “friends” than ever before, they were only keeping in touch with a small portion of these. We might wonder then, why do we have so many friends? Are they merely “flashing lights,” so to speak. A comforting distraction? And if so, are they taking away from time we could spend on relationships that really matter?
Some research suggests that Facebook is valuable because it increases social capital by providing a larger network of resources to utilize. Social capital refers to the benefits that are acquired through social relationships. In 2002, Adler and Kwon published an article called, “Social Capital: Prospects For A New Concept” that said greater social capital leads to healthier individuals, lower crime rates and greater participation in civic activities.
Having thousands of friends is like having a library of books; on occasion one is taken off the shelf, dusted off and scanned for needed information. Jackie Rodriquez, for instance, was moving from Los Angeles to Calgary. She was looking for work in marketing and was able to connect with a friend of a friend on Facebook who then introduced her to a member of the firm where she successfully landed a job.
The real problem comes when offline relationships are negatively affected by the online ones. For instance in 2009, an anonymous woman that CNN named, Cynthia Newton, confessed to spending nearly 20 hours a week on the site despite the negative implications it was having on her relationship with her daughter. “I’m an addict. I just get lost in Facebook,” she said.
Other cases are more serious. In October 2010, Florida resident, Alexandra Tobias, shook her baby to death because his crying was disrupting her virtual game on Facebook. Tobias has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of her son.
Evidently, there are instances where Facebook use disconnects us from reality. Some users spend an excess amount of time on the site checking it every hour of the day or more.
For many, the steady flow of information on Facebook is like caffeine in the bloodstream; each cup is habit-forming and leads to wanting more.
Charles of Napier University says, “Like gambling, Facebook keeps users in a neurotic limbo, not knowing whether they should hang on in there just in case they miss out on something good.” According to the Facebook statistics of 2011, 48 percent of 18-34 year olds who use Facebook, check the site as soon as they get up in the morning and 28 percent of this same group check it before getting out of bed.
“It’s connection without effort,” says an anonymous high school teacher, “kids love it because it feels like a reality away from reality and adults love it because it fits perfectly into their busy lives.”
According to Census, Americans are working more hours per day than they used to. This might make it more difficult to carry on friendships outside of work and family. Going out of the way to maintain a social life can, at times, feel like a lot of energy for some, and many rather do it from the comfortable confines of the computer. “Even if you don’t go out with your friends regularly, it’s nice to know that they’re still there,” adds the teacher.
Clive Thompson, a technology blogger and writer for the New York Times suggests that Facebook merely gives us a new way of connecting. He believes status updates over time allow us to sense the “rhythms” in the lives of our friends. Social psychologists call this, “ambient awareness,” and on Facebook, this allows us to pick up on someone’s mood based on the little things they do such as comments, likes, or status updates.
Thompson says, “taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.” He continues: “This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating.” His article goes on to describe this phenomena as, “an invisible dimension floating over everyday life,” and this adds a new level of intimacy between friends, creating not disconnection, but perhaps a deeper feeling of connection.
“Facebook broadens our children’s social circle in a way that wasn’t quite possible before this technology,” says Marjie Braun Knudsen, an author who writes about issues effecting teens and children. She shares that Facebook has in fact, allowed her children to form deeper connections to kids they might not normally interact with. For children who tend to only hang out with kids who are involved in mutual activities, Facebook exposes them to a much more diverse landscape of people and thus, helps them connect more deeply to themselves and the world.
Should we be careful? The ease of Facebook is a trap for some and can deter young people from taking social risks that further development. From the safety of computers, we are able to hide behind identities and interact in ways that may or may not be genuine. When we sign in to Facebook, relationships are in our control, giving us the power to engage or disengage when we want.
Author, Jesse Rice, says Facebook can be a “form of emotional pornography—we get the brief and intense feeling of intimacy without having to worry about commitment, conflict resolution, or the time required to build a truly intimate relationship.”
Facebook can enhance our social lives and bring out the best of our collective visions in creative, coherent ways, but it can also provide an environment lacking in both authenticity and true social bonding opportunities.
Sherry Turkle, technology writer and professor at MIT, says in regards to technology that we can become “so busy communicating that we don’t have time to sit down and have a conversation.” With more “friends” than we’ve ever had and internet-related addictions on the rise, it is obvious that we walk a fine line of connection and disconnection.
In her essay, “Facebook and the New Narcissism,” Christine Rosen says, “For centuries, the rich and the powerful documented their existence and their status through painted portraits.” She goes on to compare the use of Facebook to a painter and a blank canvas, leading with the idea that Facebook users are mostly narcissistic in nature.
Maybe she is right. Then again, perhaps what’s needed is a more mindful objective around the use of Facebook in order to stay connected offline while at the same time, staying authentic with each other and ourselves online. Can we find a middle ground to walk, making each brush stroke on Facebook with intention?