At the outset, let me confess that for the most part, I enjoy Facebook. To me it is like a huge interactive, chatty blog where one can find out what others are reading, thinking or doing, depending on what they care to divulge. I am under no illusion that it is about any "real" exercise in friendship which is more complicated than the cyberworld is able to handle. But that to me is par for the course for most activities on the web. The advantage of web based contacts and transactions is that you can initiate and end them at your own convenience, at a time of your choosing, wearing your pajamas if you wish. Real life interactions need time, preparation and they usually entail a little more physical and social effort when you engage in them. Also, as far as I am concerned, one world doesn't necessarily make the other irrelevant or unattractive.
I am not particularly paranoid about "privacy" issues on the web, especially those involving blogs and social net works. I shop, check my credit card and bank balances online. I use Gmail and know that Google reads my e-mail (easy to tell from the ads that appear depending on what and with whom I am communicating). I also write a blog where I freely express my opinion on a wide range of subjects and I often correspond with people I have never met and probably never will. Unlike my transactions with the bank or an internet merchant, I can actually control how much information (photos, home and email address, telephone number and other personal details) I make public on a blog or Facebook. There is always the risk that someone else may share information that we don't necessarily wish to share. We have little or no control over that just as we don't over real life wagging tongues and careless friends in our school, workplace or neighborhood. I find it just a bit odd that there is so much concern and uproar about privacy by social networkers who willingly sign up and share personal data that they don't have to. Facebook knows only what they allow it to know.
Still, Facebook probably thinks that it has been afforded a sufficiently intimate peek into our personal lives to become an arbiter of our "friendships and relationships." But are the Facebookers themselves making it possible by letting the network dictate the terms? This hilarious article raises the question, "Who indeed is blurring the boundaries between real and virtual lives?"
THE British anthropologist and Oxford professor Robin Dunbar has posed a theory that the number of individuals with whom a stable interpersonal relationship can be maintained (read: friends) is limited by the size of the human brain, specifically the neocortex. “Dunbar’s number,” as this hypothesis has become known, is 150.
Facebook begs to differ.
What would be an impressive, even exhaustive, number of friends in real life is bush league for Facebook’s high rollers, who have thousands. Other social networks use less-intimate terminology to portray contacts (LinkedIn has “connections,” Twitterhas “followers”), but Facebook famously co-opted the word “friend” and created a new verb.
Friending “sustains an illusion of closeness in a complex world of continuous partial attention,” said Roger Fransecky, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in New York (2,894 friends). “We get captured by Facebook’s algorithms. Every day 25 new people can march into your living room. I come from a failed Presbyterian youth, and there was a part of me that first thought it was impolite not to respond. Then I realized I couldn’t put them all in a living room — I needed an amphitheater.”
Facebook discourages adding strangers as friends, adding that only a tiny fraction of its 400 million users have reached the 5,000 threshold, at which point Facebook wags its digital finger and says: That’s enough. The company cites behind-the-scenes “back-end technology” as the reason for the cutoff, implying that the system will implode at the sight of a 5,001st friend.
“You hit this limit, and you have to commit Facebook murder, or perhaps ‘culling’ would be a better word,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan (5,000), dean of student affairs at the Columbia UniversityGraduate School of Journalism. His page bears the admonishment, “FB will not let me add any more friends,” and he periodically posts a message asking some on his list to “unfriend” him.
There is more. Do read and you will find out that it is not just teenagers and young adults who are nervous about their popularity as attested by the number of "friends" they have. This led me to analyze my own Facebook status. The number of my current "FB friends" is a little over the "Dunbar's Number" of 150. I went through the list and discovered the following facts.
1. About 55% of my FB friends are people I either know very well or have at least on one occasion, seen and spoken with in real life. They include several family members, old school friends, ex-students, current friends, friends of my kids, people who have done business with me and fellow bloggers I have met over the years.
2. I seem to actually "know" several virtual friends on a more personal level than I do some that I have encountered in real life.
3. There is no one on my FB list (except Katha Pollitt of the Nation magazine) with whom I have not had at least some contact either in the real or the virtual world. These may have been actual physical meetings, short or lengthy e-mail exchanges or at the very least, a conversation in the comments section of a blog. A very small number (friends of friends I was aware of) came on board without any prior direct contact with me, introduced by mutual friends.
4. As for Pollitt, the only "friend" with whom I don't have even the requisite six degrees of separation, I wanted to enlist as a fan, just as I did for Howard Dean and Doctors Without Borders. But failing to find a fan page, I sent her a "Friends" request which she graciously accepted. I guess Katha had not reached the magic "death" number of 5000 when I sent out my request.
5. Many flesh & blood friends in my own age group are NOT on Facebook. (They also don't read blogs.)
Going back to the issue of private and public, the internet is constantly made to look like the Big Brother, reminiscent of totalitarian states where government bureaucracy is opaque and private lives transparent. But is this analogy wholly correct? How much of coercion is really necessary for us to bare our thoughts and lives in public? After all, many in our midst voluntarily opt to live in glass houses.
[PS: A couple of examples of unintended irony:
Also, while in the process of composing this post, I was notified by Facebook about the activity , or rather the lack of it, on the FB page for Accidental Blogger! Included were also links and suggestions for ads on the page! That is indeed strange because although I provide a link to A.B. on my personal page, I have not created a Facebook page for it. How did that happen? A conspiracy between TypePad and Facebook, or did I inadvertently press a button? Sujatha, please investigate.]