Anyone who studies technology knows about the tiered nature of its adoption. Whenever a new technology or application is invented, you get the early adopters, the trend-setters, the cool-hunters; these are people who are usually clued into new applications and have a knack of joining winning technologies at the very first stage. These are also usually the first to abandon the technology when it has become popular. The second tier of adopters consists of people who are clued into new happenings, but prefer to see its potential before jumping in. The third group is what could be described as the critical mass crowd. These are people who are never early adopters, but who exert influence among their social circle. Once these connectors join in, the technology tends to reach a phase transition, and then it is widely adopted by the masses. After that you get a steady stream of late adopters who sign-up because everyone else seems to be doing it as well.
I generally class myself in the second and third tier. I am never an early adopter, but generally take-up technologies well before the mainstream. While Facebook is now 5 years old, I became aware of it in 2006 when I noticed some students using it. I thought that it looked like a useful little application, so I joined in December 2006. Even from the start I felt rather troubled by it, particularly because of the heavy student presence at the time, and the almost complete absence of other academics. What would students think of a member of staff invading their space? When I first joined there were not many friends and family on Facebook, so I felt that I would have to tread carefully.
Because this was mostly an experiment, I set out very clear rules to myself about how I would use it, and these would shape the way in which I utilised the social application in the following two years. These rules were:
- I would not upload pictures of anyone else.
- I would not remove picture tags of me from other people’s albums unless completely necessary.
- I would accept all friend invitations.
- I would initiate few invitations myself.
- I would try to keep my profile as open as possible.
- I would assume that anything I posted could be viewed by anyone else in the world.
- I would try to keep the space impersonal.
These rules made sense at the time I joined. As I said, there were practically no friends and family connected before the great Facebook explosion of 2008, so my Facebook use remained particularly detached. Because in 2007 it was still mostly a student space, the first months were rather awkward. I remember having a conversation with someone who scoffed at the idea of any 30-something joining Facebook, commenting that college kids had competitions going on how to “spot the 35 year-old”. Needless to say, that same person later joined Facebook.
Everything changed later in 2007 when larger numbers of users came online. By March 2007 the site boasted one million UK users alone, and the number of subscribers kept rising at an astounding rate. The explosion translated in more people adding me to their friends list, and because I had made the foolish vow to accept all invitations, I ended up with “friends” that I would probably not recognise in the street if they crossed my path. Unsurprisingly, by the time close friends and family had joined, my list was a bloated and unwieldy collection of former friends, former acquaintances, former work colleagues, former students, and former girlfriends. My user interface was filled with invitations to become a vampire/werewolf/ninja/pirate. I was drowning in invitations to take part in anodyne personality quizzes, install a large array of invasive applications to my profile, or play games designed to get my personal details. I was even being invited to events on the other side of the world that I would never have a chance to attend. My inbox had hundreds of unread messages.
Sometime last year I started to take a closer look at the reasons why I was on Facebook in the first place. I had joined as a social experiment, yet I became aware that I was using the technology for all the wrong reasons. The detachment that I had cultivated meant that few people actually used it to contact me in a social context. My status updates were purposefully cryptic as to maintain the aura of impersonality. My picture collections gave the impression of someone who was utterly self-absorbed because of the complete absence of any other people in them. Because I wanted to keep my profile open, my interaction with other walls ranged from rare to non-existent.
I know that some of these problems are largely self-inflicted, and that there are several possible solutions to overcome some of them. It is possible to hide oneself from user searches, hence minimising the number of incoming invitations. It is also possible to create tiered groups, where different people get to see only what you want them to see, so you could give full access to an inner circle of friends, little access to acquaintances, and no access to ex-girlfriends. While this would definitely solve some of my own personal issues with it, it does not begin to tackle the very important question of why do we have Facebook in the the first place. What is it good for? Why are we using it? Can we do without in this day and age?
The more I have been thinking about it, the more troubled I am about this particular implementation of social networking. It is not only the privacy and legal implications, of which there are many. I have come to believe that Facebook is changing the way in which we interact with one another, and not always in a good way. Scott Brown commented in Wired last November that Facebook was outdating the age-old practice of losing touch, and I found myself nodding in agreement. Maybe there are good reasons why we lose touch with old acquaintances, yet Facebook offers a space where the past and the present blur in ways that we are just starting to navigate. Everyone knows someone who has a horror story about Facebook, from cheating spouses to lost jobs. The increasingly complicated arena of Facebook social etiquette has added an extra level of complexity to social interactions that does not always work for the best.
But the main reason why I have decided to quit Facebook is because of what we really use it for: to flaunt and to compare profiles. Face it, large part of people’s profile pages are nothing more than an exercise in gloating, showing-off the best version of themselves they can find. More power to them really, but am I really interested by it? Probably not. On the other hand, there is the perverse and almost voyeuristic action of going through people’s profiles and finding out more about a person than you really wanted to know, or in some people’s cases, to gleefully go through someone’s profile to laugh and ridicule them in private.
So I have decided that I’ve had enough with Facebook. I could engage in massive de friending exercise, but how could I even begin choosing how to do that? To defriend someone on Facebook has become the last social taboo. It sends all the wrong social signals as the ultimate act of rejection. Besides, I do not really use FB that much any more, so why continue being attached to it? Reading through some stories of people who have decided to take the same action, I came across this phrase attributed to Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do”
It made me think a lot. So I will set my house in order, notify who I need to notify, and I will be off. If you happen to be in my friend’s list, apologies in advance. I did not mean you personally of course. I was not that good of a friend anyway, so you won’t be sorry to see me go. You can always follow me in less intrusive and unnerving social media, such as this blog, Twitter, and Flickr.