Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Flip Side of Facebook and Friendship

The timeliness of a WSJ article titled How Facebook Ruins Friendships is not lost on me given the fact that I just recently wrote about how Facebook has helped me to rekindle some friendships that had faded over the years.

Writer Elizabeth Berstein did make some valid points in her article, but despite the following arguments, I still stand behind my original thesis that, on the whole, Facebook does help rather than hurt friendships.

Having said that however, Bernstein does pose some really convincing arguments that are worth discussing. Some ways she says Facebook can ruin friendships:
  • trivial updates that waste space on everyone's news feed (a la, "just dropped the kids off at school", "makin' dinner", "watching Letterman...") If we don't call people to tell them these things, then why are we posting about them? All we're doing with these kinds of status updates is showing people how narcissistic we are.
  • posting quiz and game results on your news feed implying your ability to spend hours online yet explicitly telling people in person how busy you are
  • passive-aggressive behavior is seen as more acceptable because people feel they can hide behind their computer screen
  • losing the benefit of body language to help gauge a person's intent.

I admit that some of these behaviors can mar friendships and make in-person communication awkward. I have experienced those passive-aggressive posts from people that I felt were directed toward me and so there's an uncomfortableness when speaking to that person face to face. I'm not really sure how to explain how I feel about those people. I don't think Facebook has changed their behavior; they've just suddenly found a venue with which their vices can be more openly on display. Some people are just worse at filtering than others.

I also scratch my head at the banality of posts that iPhone and Blackberry users write like "sitting on the subway" or "waiting in line at Target," because as an English teacher, one of the first lessons we teach our students about writing is the rule of "So what?" You want to write about the first time you fell off your bike? So what? Why was that important? You want to write about your vacation to Disney World? So what? Millions of people around the world have gone there as a kid. Why should I care about your trip there? When writing for or addressing an audience, you always have to ask yourself, Am I answering the internal so what? that all people ask when reading a piece of text? Despite the 140 character brevity of status updates, I think some of our Facebook and Twitter friends haven't learned this rule yet.

So let me help you out here Facebook users. A status update like "...sitting on the subway" is boring because everyone on your friends list is going to say to themselves So what? But if you post something like, "...sitting on the subway, smiling at the young man with piercings and a mohawk who gave up his seat for an elderly lady and then chatted with her for the rest of his ride," people are going to be more intrigued by what you have to say. Suddenly there is no trace of a so what? mulling around in their heads because you gave them the answer to that question. In that short amount of text, you just told everyone, "Appearances aren't always what they seem. Someone whom I initially judged to be intimidating, scary, and defiant, turned out to be courteous, respectful, and likable." Wow! We just witnessed someone learning a life lesson in 140 characters or less!

There's no doubt that some of the things I post on FB could be considered a bit mundane, but for the most part, I really do try to make my posts conversation-worthy. Yes, every once in a while, I'll post something boring like, "I'm tired. Going to bed," but as a general rule, I like to post updates that I feel I would discuss with friends around a dinner table or over the phone.

But for those people who, after reading this blog post, have deemed themselves in the category of mundane status updates, just ask yourself, the following before you hit submit: Is this something that people are going to ask So what? about or did I answer that question for them in these 140 characters?

So yes, turning your internal filter off when using Twitter or Facebook can negatively impact your friendships, but that's the same for us in real life. I was (and still kinda am) someone whose mouth could get her in trouble because I would speak before thinking. I'd like to think that, while there is a trace of that girl with foot-in-mouth disease, I've also learned to scale it back a bit. As social networking continues to grow, the points mentioned by Bernstein are, just like any other life lessons, ones that some people will just have to learn the hard way.

1 comment: