Facebook makes me feel like a shitty friend

Networks, Theory, and the Web — Sean Bonner @ 7:38 am
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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook and how I use it and with what people. Obviously the recent privacy changes and their new connections have me giving the site a closer look (and have some people taking legal action). Honestly that alone should make making everyone give it a closer look but those changes aren’t what are keeping me obsessed with it, it’s my reactions to my reactions. Let me explain.

In the past when a “social” website that I had an account on took a nose dive into the weaksauce I’d simply delete my account and move on. I’d do that without much thought and without looking back, I was happy to be there while it was fun but if it wasn’t fun anymore there was no reason to stay around and there would be a new site just on the horizon. Come to think of it that is what happened when I deleted my accounts on both Friendster and MySpace many years ago. Anyway, the new (and not so new) direction Facebook is heading has me reaching daily for the delete option. Many folks I know have already gone through with it, and while I’ve talked very publicly about my urges to kill it I still haven’t taken that final plunge. I haven’t done it for the same reason I suspect lots of others haven’t done it – there are people I only keep up with thanks to Facebook.

Look, the site has over 100 million users according to their FAQ page so it’s really not surprising that everyone from long lost friends to family that I’m not very good at keeping in touch with are on there. I’ve reconnected with people I went to grade school with and made amends with people I never thought I’d talk to again on the pages of Facebook. It’s made those relationships, those reconnections and those constant connections so thoughtless and easy that anyone and everyone can do it. Everyone is there. How can I leave when everyone is there. I keep thinking that over and over. All these people that I like and want to stay in touch with are on Facebook and if I delete my account and walk away I risk losing those connections. (of course I can’t export my contacts because Facebook likes to keep me locked in to their system but that is another rant for another time)

And really, those connections are the only reason I’m on Facebook. I don’t play Farmville. I don’t really join groups. I don’t send gifts or take quizes. I go there to connect with those people who I think are important to me for one reason or another. And I’ve been picky, there are very, very few people I’m connected to on Facebook that I haven’t actually met in person. Some people approve anyone who asks but I wanted to keep in personal to some extent. And not Facebook wants to make it anything but personal and I’m worried about not playing ball with that because I don’t want to lose contact with those people I’ve linked up with there.

But that got me thinking, all those people who are on Facebook are also on another network I use every day. It’s called the internet.

So why do I think I can connect and interact with them on Facebook but not anywhere else? Because Facebook made it easy. So now I have to wonder am I only staying in touch with those people because it requires absolutely zero effort on my part? What kind of a person does that make me? What does that say about how much I value their friendship? I feel like I’m saying “Oh hey there, I’m so glad I can see what is going on in your life so long as it’s wheeled out in front of me and doesn’t require me to actually lift a finger because if I had to do something like, type out your e-mail or go to your own website or *gasp* pick up a phone to talk to you that would just be too much.”

And really, maybe I am. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to think that I’m saying that. I don’t like how that makes me feel about myself if that is in fact what I’m saying. But if I am appalled by the direction Facebook is heading and I’ve walked away from other sites for much smaller infractions but am hanging onto this one because I don’t think I can maintain these relationships without it, what else am I saying?

If someone told me they liked me and cared about what was up in my life but couldn’t be bothered to reach out to me, ever, and only would stay in touch if my life was handed to them effort free I’d think they were a shitty friend and insincere about their feelings towards me. So turning that mirror around on myself and what else can I think?

There was a time when people kept in touch with their friends without Facebook. It’s shocking to think, but it’s true. I saw a documentary about it one time.

I feel like Jules in Pulp Fiction who has just realized what role he’s been playing and desperately wants to take the other path. I don’t want to be a bad friend, but I don’t want to continue playing this game either. I want to walk away but I don’t want to leave people behind. It’s a totally stressful situation which makes it even worse – I’m stressing out about some stupid website? What the hell is wrong with me?

But I’m stuck in that limbo at the moment trying to decide which direction my next step will be. And really, it’s not Facebook that is making me feel bad, it’s what Facebook it making me think about myself that is.

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20 Comments »

  1. sean – I know it seems easy to self recriminate about the casualness of Facebook’s interactions, but I cannot possibly imagine a person with your level of busyness being able to keep up any other way. Yes, we have the internet, but yes, we’ve chose to to let that and a million other speedy things eat our time. If you e-mailed every long lost friend with the regularity Facebook affords, you’d have less time for your immediate family, right? If Facebook is casual, its peripheral as well, and no stress is warranted in my estimation. I’m lucky to have it due to a medical condition, and grateful to be able to have it “handed to me”. Cheers.

    Comment by Lesha — May 7, 2010 @ 7:54 am
  2. Sean, your post resonated with me on so many levels. Its been a few months since I have also realized that a number of people who can contact me via email/chat/phone (and I do the same) depend on Facebook for the majority of communication. There has to be an alternative-perhaps a return to the pre-social network communication-style–because this is getting old.

    Comment by Mars — May 7, 2010 @ 7:55 am
  3. Lesha – I think that is kind of my point, and admittedly not one I’m making very well. Many of the people I’ve “reconnected” with on Facebook are people I haven’t seen or had any other contact with in over 20 years. Was I a shitty friend last year because I hadn’t talked to them since high school, or had we just simply gone different directions with our lives? But now all the sudden I feel like I’m obligated to keep using facebook for fear of losing these connections that I didn’t have a year ago, and prior to that never thought I would have.

    Comment by Sean Bonner — May 7, 2010 @ 8:05 am
  4. thanks for sharing, sean. overshare and i’ll quit you. i too have been reflecting on facebook and my usage very very recently. has something changed?

    facebook is a tool like any other. it can be overused, misused, and neglected. i find the vast feature and information set make facebook hard to categorize as you might your other tools.

    I’ve decided it can be good for me, but only in a few limited ways:
    – It works well for communicating with people who are otherwise hard to reach (old friends and the addicts). I sort of comes down to authors needing to know their audience.
    – I can promote events and internet crap. luckily this can be done from the comfort of your many other interfaces.
    – finally, i enjoy reading about my loved ones and participating in their lives (in person) whenever possible.

    — spacehippy matt pinner

    Comment by matt pinner — May 7, 2010 @ 8:45 am
  5. I’ve had pretty much the same experience but reached a different conclusion. First, I should note that I use Facebook in a similar way. Facebook has become much less useful, in my opinion, for maintaining any type of conversation between friends but it does allow me to keep tabs on what’s going on with people I don’t see very often anymore. Ex classmates etc. You wonder about whether it means you’re a bad friend if you don’t check up on people, but when your lives diverge that’s just what happens. My fear in deleting my Facebook account is that I will miss a cue that would remind me of some common touch stone. Say they’re catching another stop on a tour I saw or are traveling to a conference I’m interested in. Maybe our interests have changed over the last few years and now overlap in a way I wouldn’t have guessed. In those cases I probably wouldn’t have reached out to them about it if I hadn’t seen some Facebook update they made.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with having good, strong acquaintances. Let’s just acknowledge that Facebook is a place for peripheral friends. It allows you to get invited to parties by those friends of friends that you thought are cool but never really had the time to get to know. Our lives are full of people we like but aren’t really close with. There are tons of people who live in the same city I do and are part of my social circle but I don’t see on a regular basis. However, whenever I do see them out I still have a good time talking to them. They would never call me a shitty friend for not calling them just to say, “Hi.” In all honesty, our lives probably wouldn’t change dramatically if we weren’t Facebook friends. But I still like to see what projects they have going on and see what they think is interesting. There’s nothing wrong with making that easy.

    I mean, really, do you ever set up any sort of personal event on Facebook? (Like a one on one lunch, I mean.) You have to have a profile, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be built for interacting with people you already know. As a tool for meeting new people it’s pretty awful, so why do we want to list shit that we like?

    We can’t forget that it was originally designed for young people who were moving into isolated communities that were still too large to navigate easily. College students’ social lives change by varying degrees every quarter or semester when they’re tossed into new classes. The whole system was designed to assist in maintaining connections with people you weren’t all that connected to in the first place. The fact that I now get added on Facebook by people DURING our first meeting only drives home that point.

    As I see it, the only reason to be getting down on yourself about your Facebook use is if you’re realizing that you’re not on there out of the hope of strengthening a tenuous or fledgling relationship. You’re absolutely right that Facebook or no Facebook you’re core relationships will be fine.

    Comment by Thomas — May 7, 2010 @ 9:07 am
  6. I would have deleted my account a long time ago…but there’s only an option for “deactivate”. So, what’s the point? Now my whole family uses it, and it pretty much replaces email and such.

    If that reconnected friend doesn’t put forth the effort to keep that connection beyond facebook, then maybe they really aren’t friends. Or mauve facebook makes the friendship more convenient.

    Comment by Erica — May 7, 2010 @ 12:51 pm
  7. And by mauve, I totally meant maybe!!

    Comment by Erica — May 7, 2010 @ 12:53 pm
  8. Sean, you’re maintaining a lot of weak-tie connections only because it requires zero effort. These connections are not really necessary, and could and would be discarded if any more effort was required. As it stands right now you’re using mental energy and stressing about these weak ties, which means they’re probably a net drain on your life.

    It’s perfectly okay to cut those weak relationships off and leave facebook if you want to. Otherwise, accept that this class of relationship exists, and it does not need to be equal to your closer friendships, where you would make a stronger effort.

    Comment by Zvi — May 7, 2010 @ 1:08 pm
  9. I keep up with my friends via a variety of slices of the internet. I have many dear friends who I feel very connected with via flickr (J&D’s new goats on the farm, X&R’s baby making talk-like noises, looks like SB is at intellivenice again, etc). Some friends blog, livejournal, tweet… in many cases the communication is less personal/synchronous/intimate and very asymmetrical, but often deeper and higher bandwidth than we could achieve with casual phone call or meandering email exchange.

    A decade and a half ago it was a couple active mailing lists and a certain irc channel that kept me in touch with some close friends — and unlike facebook, led to me making some new ones. It is more than a convenience that I could choose to lurk or spew, publicly interrogate or privately reach out to my friends and frenemies in that medium – there was richness and real serendipity at hand. Those very same communities still exist today but traffic and participation is thin as people have migrated into the endless pruning their weedy walled gardens, sniffing small flowers and trying not to get stung by swarming hornets.

    If facebook with all its engineering might could morph into an open aggregator – a sort of friendfeed on UI steroids – its utility as a tool for letting me legitimately keep up with and manage the disparate social content produced by my friends and people I’m a fan of, I might be more tolerant of it choosing to license/exploit my “social graph” information to other businesses to turn a buck. but it sucks balls at the one thing it is supposed to do from a user perspective. friendfeed, buzz, google reader to name a few all do much of this stuff better.

    the only thing facebook excels at is making too many of my friends feel that they’ll be missing out on something if they leave the garden. the first thing _everyone_ needs to do is stop directly giving facebook any content that could otherwise be added to facebook via aggregation: tweet your status instead of wallposts; add photos to flickr/picassa instead of to an FB album, get a blog/tumblr instead of sharing stuff only on FB. don’t plant your seeds in this shitty chemically-fertilized garden that makes your friends pull weeds all day.

    Comment by tonx — May 7, 2010 @ 2:31 pm
  10. Zvi – Right! I know they are weak tie connections and for the rest of my life I have had no problem accepting that those come and go, but now because of how Facebook is structured I suddenly am worried and feeling guilty about something that never bothered me before.

    Comment by Sean Bonner — May 7, 2010 @ 2:59 pm
  11. Sean, in the past you simply would lose contact with people over time. It’s not being a bad friend. It’s moving on with your life. People change, evolve, lose connections and grow new ones. Social networks are changing that dynamic. But think about it, how realistic is it that an individual can truly be “friends” with hundreds, or thousands, of individuals? As for the shitiness of Facebook, I’m hoping that a more privacy-concerned alternative will arise soon, because I too am getting tired of the shenanigans. This article makes me wonder if we’ll have a viable option in the future.

    Comment by Mike — May 7, 2010 @ 3:12 pm
  12. Yeah. Maybe Facebook gets us on the “collect” behavior. I reconnected with people I didn’t have any news for a long time but that doesn’t make me closer to them. Actually I’m physically much more far away now that I am friend with them on Facebook than when I wasn’t on this social network.
    I feel the threshold where I could have deleted my account has been overtaken (entire family on it). Sort of too late for me.

    Comment by Harold — May 7, 2010 @ 3:37 pm
  13. Sean, the solution is clear. You practice minimalism in what you carry and what you own. Do the same with these stressful weak-ties. They’re brain-baggage.

    Comment by Zvi — May 7, 2010 @ 6:33 pm
  14. To build on what some others have said – what’s the problem with having casual relationships (that’s sounds X rated as hell) on Facebook? You express guilt that you might have these kinds of relationships, but you haven’t defined or sussed out why it’s wrong.

    Another approach would be to just take Facebook for what it is, and be glad for the way in which it diversifies the possible social interactions and the broadens the kinds of ‘friendships’ that are available to you.

    If I was gonna FB hate, it would be privacy + addictiveness that I would hate on. It’s like the stickiest site in the universe and my interaction with it is like 90% unhealthy.

    Comment by Alex Thompson — May 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm
  15. Alex – I’m not complaining about those relationships at all, I’ve had casual come and go weak link relationships my whole life, my problem is facebook treats those like strong link and sells them that way so when I think “oh man all this privacy shit is fucked, I’m going to quit” I’m getting the feeling like I’m about to abandon a bunch of close friends when in fact it is really just tons of weak link casual connections that have always been in the sidelines. It’s just a perception issue.

    Comment by Sean Bonner — May 7, 2010 @ 7:54 pm
  16. [...] is an aside titled 'Friend hoarding' dated 5/8/10 Sean Bonner deleted his Facebook account and wrote an interesting post about it, “am I only staying in touch with those people because [...]

    Pingback by Friend hoarding | Tomorrow Museum — May 8, 2010 @ 8:02 pm
  17. [...] While Facebook’s popularity keeps rising, its reputation has been dropping since the recent privacy changes. Betty White declared it a waste of time when she hosted SNL, even though her hosting was supposedly possible because of Facebook. She was joking of course, but I don’t think FB is a brand that people feel they should apologize to. Some people have deleted their accounts. Others are considering it. [...]

  18. I understand the authenticity of friendships argument and all, but to be honest, I view Facebook as really just me taking a step – albeit a lazy one, to meet someone else on common ground. This seems a small and controllable sacrifice on my part, and maybe in some cases, an opportunity to paint a more 3D picture of the person they are to a manageable degree (sometimes over years). In some cases, people I know really don’t know any other way and were likely born in the late 80’s, are college-age… they’re fellow students and students of mine.

    To the other end, I knew what I was getting into 3-4 years ago with Facebook and could’ve probably called every business move they made 3-6 months prior to them deploying some way to offend their user base in some way. Sometimes I actually use Facebook in reverse: I look to see where exactly my information ends up, and what they’re targeting to me, based on what information I’ve changed (or falsified), and who they think I know, and what would be the algorithmic reasoning behind some suggestions they’ve made. This is just because I’m curious, and like breaking and (subsequently) fixing things.

    Overall? I don’t think I will kill Facebook because I have some social investment in it, but it’s all still manageable for me. The wall that they have is a REALLY thin wall now, but I like that wall because most social networks don’t allow me to even *define* that wall. (Yes, even though FB has done an incredibly shoddy job of keeping their users informed about their so-called “innovation” of the platform that *gasp!* includes exposure of information for advertisers and partners — C’MON! Oldest business model in the book. But it’s just shitty they’ve yanked the carpet out from under users and make it so hard for everyone to get some sort of control over their profile… 4 nav actions to privacy settings… WTF?)

    Comment by Glenda — May 11, 2010 @ 4:34 pm
  19. I know everyone that I am friends with on Facebook with the majority being high school and Microsoft friends. Over the course of my pregnancy and now that Ripley is here I have gotten closer to friends who also have kids – we reconnected over a common theme. Their insight and help has been invaluable and I trust what they have to say over strangers in an online group.

    Many friends have changed addresses and email addresses over the years and FB allows me to stay in touch with them without having to constantly update their personal info in my AB book.

    Peoples’ lives change and so do their interests and their whereabouts and I actually like the ebb and flow of old friends and new friends being front and center in my life and then dropping back a bit naturally. I also really like that I can not only see what my friends are up to when I feel like it, but also what’s going on in my hometown and the cities that I used to live in.

    To me Facebook is the opposite of feeling guilty. I can jump on it and peruse through my friends’ updates, let them know I like what they are doing and pop off. There is no way I can possibly do that via email or phone calls, or even remembering everyone’s personal websites.

    Comment by Tara Brown — May 11, 2010 @ 4:59 pm
  20. [...] of the New Changes” and my personal favorite: “What It All Means” (in particular, this heartfelt and intelligent self-discussion by [...]

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