Reflection: Why “It’s Complicated” With Facebook

When my wife and I got married at the beginning of last August, we decided not to use Facebook or do (practically) any e-mail during our month-long honeymoon, since we wanted our vacation to be free from social distraction. Afterwards, once we got set up in our apartment in Oxford, I gave myself a little challenge, on a whim: not to open up Facebook until I had a need or strong desire to. While the need was realized once or twice (I maintain a Facebook application called BookTracker, and had to update and test some code, which required going to the canvas page for the application), the strong desire wasn’t. Thus it happens that, 5 months after my Facebook hiatus officially ended, I still haven’t updated my status (although updates are made automatically when I publish a blog) or seen anything in my news feed. Somewhat humorously, Jessica and I haven’t even bothered to update our relationship status from ‘Engaged’ to ‘Married’! What follows are a few reflections I now feel prepared to make about Facebook (and a fortiori much of social media in general), given that I’ve had a decent amount of time to differentiate from it:

  • Facebook is distracting. Even though I had heavily curated my news feed, ruthlessly eliminating ‘friends’ to keep them from crufting it up with FarmVille updates, I now recognize that Facebook was a habitual distraction. Whenever I paused in work or lost a train of thought, I’d mindlessly navigate to Facebook and get even further away from what I really needed to spend time doing. I still have other such distractions, e-mail being the most major. But in resisting the urge to click my Facebook bookmark, I really do save time and brain cycles. I think the mode of distraction goes deeper than individual distraction experiences, however; more on this in further reflections!

  • Facebook discourages extended or systematic discourse. I’m the kind of person who likes to share thoughts and ideas, and sometimes I even think others appreciate them. What Facebook (and moreso Twitter) encouraged me to do was to compress these thoughts into something that could fit into a status update. I realized that this bite-size style of communication had two effects:
    • My desires to share thoughts/ideas were satisfied by publishing these snippets, and I therefore had less inclination to try and say something that took time to post on my blog. Why would I try to make a complex and nuanced contribution to a conversation when I would get ‘liked’ just as much for saying something short and snarky, or simply passing on a link?
    • The things I said were less useful or interesting to others. While there is indeed value in saying something concisely, there are a lot of valuable things that can’t be so stated (hopefully this post is among them, for example). Some arguments that merit attention are extended!

    A systemic corollary of this, I think, is the general reduction of people’s willingness to engage with complicated ideas that take time to explicate and understand. I think it’s obvious why this is a problem—one has only to look at any hot political issue to see what happens when debate devolves into slogan-shouting (i.e., status-update-slinging)!

  • Facebook is shallow. I mean this in a number of ways. The previous point elaborated on the shallowness inherent in the sharing mechanism, but I believe it extends to the quality of relationships maintained on Facebook, and in general the content which is produced (‘social’ apps tend to exacerbate this problem, as they try to spam the news feed with meaningless achievements or updates). I think this point is a strict consequence of other things I’ve been saying, but I wanted to sum it up under one adjective.

  • Facebook technologizes relationships. I hope that this entry will be the first of many to come relating to the philosophy of technology, and so I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here. Basically, Facebook is an instance of the technological paradigm in that it commoditizes the goods it claims to procure for us. Ostensibly, Facebook’s goal is merely to provide something like ‘frictionless online connection’ for pre-existing friendships. However, let’s face it, what people use Facebook for is ‘connection’ simpliciter, and often not even in the context of a pre-existing relationship. The ‘connection’ that Facebook procures for us in this regard is the mere composite of the sharing and consuming of personal information, rather than the appropriate synchronization of sharing/consuming which engenders true connection. These two behaviors (sharing and consuming) are disconnected in such a way that everyone is talking, and everyone is listening, but nobody is having a conversation. And yet, in the way that high-fructose corn syrup fools our bodies into thinking they have ingested something natural (sugar), I notice that, for the most part, Facebook users believe this flood of voices projected into the void constitutes legitimate connection.

  • Facebook facilitates strange interpersonal behavior. Has anyone ever had a Facebook friend post something to their wall which should have more appropriately been sent as a private message? I have, and much more often than experiencing the equivalent real-life behavior (i.e., communicating personal information within earshot of others) or even the equivalent e-mail behavior (i.e., cc’ing people who really don’t have anything to do with the private contents of the message). Has anyone else noticed a growing tendency in users to share fairly personal and/or awkward updates to their entire friend list? Facebook provides tools to moderate who sees what, but few if any people make use of these tools, with the result that most users’ friend lists are undifferentiated masses of relationships, probably not all of whom should be informed at the same time about, say, a miscarriage! Are these things Facebook’s fault? Not directly, perhaps, but the ecosystem has somehow bred this kind of culture, perhaps because the disembodied nature of Facebook relationships makes it easier to forget who exactly you’re speaking to.

    One more personal example: mere hours after our wedding, my wife and I were tagged in Facebook photos of the event (nevermind the fact that our invitation explicitly asked guests not to do this!), which of course are visible to God-knows-who. We were faced with the decision of waiting to relive our special day through our wedding photographer’s photos (which would take a few months to arrive), or seeing people’s crappy cameraphone pics immediately, in all their poorly-lit glory. We chose to ignore the Facebook photos, and in fact I still haven’t been on to see any of them. My point is: when did it become socially acceptable to publicize photos of a bride and groom to the wider network before said bride and groom can even realistically be expected to be able to see them?

  • Facebook is the best tool on the internet for making stuff ‘social’. Let’s face it, we all use the internet, and we’re not going to stop anytime soon. A lot of what we do online is socially oriented, like sharing photos of weddings and parties and vacations with friends. If we ignore the strange social behavior I claim is encouraged by Facebook culture, there’s nothing wrong at all with sharing photos with friends. This is one of the few things I’ve missed about using Facebook, though I guess I could post everything to Flickr and link it up here on my blog, hoping people would find their way to the photos. Likewise, Facebook is the best avenue I know for reliably blasting information to the widest audience I have; that is why I decided to let my blog posts automatically generate updates on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to suggest that these channels are in principle good things.

I think it’s clear that, overall, I’m pretty happy with my time away from Facebook. It’s enabled me to recognize some of the weird things that happen in its ecosystem, whether or not they are explicitly encouraged by Facebook itself. I also have substantial worries about what social media in general is doing to the concept of real friendship and embodied relationship. I think these are broader worries about the pattern of technology which hopefully I’ll be able to explicate in future posts (my ultimate goal will be to blog through a book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Society, by Albert Borgmann, which has radically reshaped my thinking about the nature of technology). I also hope I don’t need to make an exhaustive list of qualifications, e.g., people are weird without Facebook too, and so on—I simply think there is a definitive pattern of engagement we can discern through observation of social networks, and it’s worth taking a critical perspective on that pattern, in order to inform our decisions about how we want to relate with networks like Facebook.

PS: Justin has reminded me that our friend Jesse Rice has a book about how to engage with social media in a spiritually healthy way: The Church of Facebook. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting! Comments from anyone who’s read it?

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

10 thoughts on “Reflection: Why “It’s Complicated” With Facebook”

  1. Well shit, as the worst offender, sorry about wedding photos on facebook. I must have missed that in the invitation. I can certainly take them down if still desired.

    I would say though that on that subject, there are a great many friends whose weddings I can’t attending due to timing or location, and if people didn’t post photos of the event I’d never get to see what it looked like. Most people aren’t going to license their professional photographer’s photos for web use, and if they did it’d be months down the road.

    Even if I don’t mirror your views on the subject, I respect them, and I do agree with a great deal of what you said. I specifically created a password I couldn’t type on my phone to avoid further distraction.

  2. Alan,

    No worries, really…! In fact in writing this, I remembered you had been taking some shots of the wedding with an impressive camera. We’d love to see them–want to send us a zip file? 🙂

    To reiterate to you and anyone else who might read this, Jess and I had no negative thoughts whatsoever about anyone who posted photos of our wedding–you guys are our cherished friends! I simply wanted to comment on the irony of the whole situation.

  3. Hmmmm.

    Well, while I agree in principle on many of the things you’ve said, I’d like to take a second to point out that, in comparison with the relationship you have with your spouse, and a few select friends or family members, all real life relationships are shallow and are maintained through little “snippets” of communication.

    I love and hate Facebook. I love it because I get to keep up with friends that I would otherwise never hear from. Sure, I only get little pictures of their lives, but I prefer those little pictures to nothing at all. In fact, if I didn’t have YOU as a friend on FB, I wouldn’t have a foggy clue as to what was going on with you. And what I do get to have is just a little snippet. It’s not a deep conversation by any means, but it’s a little window into the house of Jonathan Lipps. And I’m grateful for that. I value you and your thoughts, no matter how many, how deep, how shallow, or how often I get to hear of them.

    I hate FB for the reason that it does waste a lot of time, but somehow, I view that as a self control issue and not anything else. I should, as a grown woman, be able to handle that and know when get offline to do something else. (Frankly, I have so little time these days that I don’t get to waste too much time anywhere anyway. Although, some days like today afford me more time; what with the snow and ice, we’re having a PJ day with movies, assorted baking projects and hot cocoa.) 🙂

    Without phone calls or emails with friends, or FB, I don’t have the opportunity for much communication with another adult during the day, or much conversation at all, except about how stinky farts are, how hungry someone feels, or that someone needs something now. Like the toy that just got taken from them. It’s a nice way for me in this stage of life to look out and realize that I’m not crazy or even alone…and when I’ve only got a minute and a half because there’s a poopy diaper, it’s a blessing to have that spyglass into the outside world. Because reading a book or watching the news or perusing the newest philosophical theory on xy and z is just not possible with three small kids, I’m grateful for the little snippets I get from Facebook. Some of them are newsworthy, and some make me laugh, and some make me cry, some make me appreciate life, some make me hold my children really closely, some make me roll my eyes, and some get ignored completely…but it’s what I’ve got during this time in life. And I’m glad for it. And I wish you were there more often. 🙂

  4. Also, I think you could mention Jesse’s book “The Church of Facebook” as a good prescription for how to approach social media in a spiritually-healthy manner that engages some of your concerns.

  5. Sweet Johnny,
    I wish we could see each other and talk some day..about life in general. You’ve got an awesome mind, and I miss you.

  6. while i’d be interested in reading jesse’s book to see how he explores the relationship between social media and a healthy spirituality, i wanted to share another book that perhaps could is equally interesting… i just came across ‘consuming life’ by zygmunt bauman. here’s an excerpt from the front cover:

    the teenagers equipped with portable electronic confessionals are simply apprentices training and trained in the art of living in a confessional society–a society notorious for effacing the boundary which once separated the private from the public, for making it a public virtue and obligation to publicly expose the private,and for wiping away from public communication anything that resists being reduced to private confidences, together with those who refuse to confide in them. as jim gamble, the head of a watchdog agency, admitted to the guardian, ‘it represents everything you see in the school playground–the only difference is that in this playground, there are no teachers or police or moderators to keep an eye on what’s going on.’

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