I’ve had this WSJ article by Elizabeth Bernstein called ‘How Facebook Ruins Friendships‘ open in a tab in my browser for over a week now because I’ve felt I needed to say something about it. Unfortunately due to the fact that I’ve been in the middle of traveling around the world and that the article is so massively flawed I haven’t been able to decide where to begin. I just reread it and realized what is stumping me.
I want to write something lengthy about how it’s the old problem of misunderstanding the technology and one group of people asserting that another group of people should use something as flexible as Facebook in only one way, and assuming anyone using it another way is wrong. The reason sites like Facebook and Twitter are so popular is that at facevalue they are simple, but their simplicity allows people to use them in ways that work best for them, which is rarely the same way someone else uses them. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature and something we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Some people can’t grasp that concept and insist on thinking there is only one way to interact with them. In real life we don’t only interact with people in one way, we have a million different choices depending on the person and the situation and Facebook and Twitter are some of the first major steps towards having those kinds of relationships online as well. As a society, we never think that the person who stood in line next to us at the coffee shop, our cousin who we haven’t seen in months, a co-worker from 3 jobs ago and our neighbor are all jerks because they don’t talk to us the exact same way our closest circle of friends does, so why do we expect that kind of uniformity online?
I want to write yet another piece about how the problem lies more in how we classify “friends” online, and how early attempts at this have made the road harder, but Facebook and Twitter are more educated steps in the right direction. Before the internet we had endless ways to classify people we knew – Friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, boss, ex roommate, penpal, etc etc etc. Each one of those meant something very different and we all knew it. When we moved online we were forced to decide if someone was a friend or not, with no other options. That both bumped some people into categories it shouldn’t have as well as watering down the term “friend” itself. The popularity contest encouraged by almost everyone of having more friends on a site then someone else only ads more to this. Is someone you’ve never met and never talked to a friend simply because you both have stated that some other person is your friend, or because you live in the same city? Likely not. While both Facebook and Twitter allow you to limit and adjust the kinds of info you get, and send, to different kinds of people, most folks just accept all and broadcast all which clutters their stream and makes them say things like “Why is your life so frickin’ important and entertaining that we need to know?” as someone quoted in Ms. Bernstein’s article states.
Which brings me to the crux of this – Ms. Bernstein starts her piece by saying “Notice to my friends: I love you all dearly. But I don’t give a hoot that you are “having a busy Monday,”” Guess what, if you don’t care if someone is having a busy Monday chances are you don’t love them, and shouldn’t be considering them your friends. And I’m not saying that in a bad way, I’m noting user error here. Clearly Ms. Bernstein has made the mistake of classifying acquaintance as a friend and now she’s annoyed because she’s given them too much access. There is nothing wrong with not caring about the intricate details of every single person’s life. There is something wrong with saying every single person is your friend and then complaining that your friends are telling you things you don’t care about.
There are people I know, perhaps because I worked with them years ago, that I’m connected to on Facebook. I would not consider these people friends, we never hang out and I haven’t talked to them in ages, but I wouldn’t deny that we know each other and if I saw them in person I’d stop to say hi and catch up. I don’t care if these people are having a busy Monday and that is why I have Facebook set to not show me updates from those people. There are other people who I see on a regular basis, will rearrange my schedule to hang out with if I have the chance, and honestly enjoy the company of. These people are my friends and I do care if they are having a busy Monday.
If there was no internet and I saw one of these people in person and they said they were having a busy Monday I’d probably ask why, I might even ask if there was anything I could do to help. Conversely if there was no internet and the person driving next to me rolled down his window to tell me he was having a busy Monday I’d likely roll mine up because I don’t care. But I know someone else out there probably does.
That might sound rude, but it’s because we’re looking at this as a 1 to 1 relationship. The web, and Facebook in particular isn’t 1 to 1, it’s 1 to many. You might not care about something someone is saying, but likely they aren’t saying it to you, and there is someone else out there who does care. You shouldn’t be annoyed they are saying something you don’t care about, you should realize you are doing something wrong and need to adjust you consumption of info to make sure you are only getting info you do care about. The people aren’t assholes for saying something you don’t care about, you are for assuming they are only talking to you.
This works from the other side as well, when I post something online, be it on this blog, on Facebook or on Twitter I don’t assume everyone is going to read it. I don’t even want everyone to read it, but I know that some people are interested and for them it is valuable. Some people however think everything they put online should be read by everyone they know, and that causes problems because it has no basis in reality at all.
My point is that Facebook, or Twitter, or any other piece of software doesn’t ruin relationships. Misunderstanding people ruins relationships. Trying to put everyone you know into one cute little box ruins relationships. Assuming that because you don’t care means no one else does ruins relationships.
Facebook and Twitter and sites like them give you the chance to get closer to people you want to, more efficiently. It’s up to you to decide who that includes.