Daily, we take for granted something revolutionary: we can instantaneously update thousands of people on any information we desire to share. Inherent in that great power, however, is the even greater risk of potential embarrassment, ranging anywhere from awkward tweenage photos to your creepy uncle commenting on every status. I often hear people attribute most of the embarrassment they suffer on Facebook to the completely socially unacceptable public involvement of their parents or adult relatives. I think it’s time to examine this phenomenon that has given rise to the consensus that there is a socially acceptable way and a non-socially acceptable way to use social media.
This communal assumption—regardless of its truthfulness—merely reflects our application of offline social norms to the online sphere. It isn’t that parents just don’t know how to acceptably use social media. Rather, social media platforms like Facebook have become giant community gatherings, with adults and children alike sharing the same social hall. Within this room, adults interact with adults in the ways are socially acceptable, teens with teens, and it necessarily includes awkward interactions, much like parents dancing with their teenager at his Bar Mitzvah. Facebook provides the four walls, but within them, we mostly interact the way we would in “real” life.
The social acceptability of one’s online persona is therefore held to the same standard as one’s real life persona. But of course there is a spectrum, just as the degree of embarrassment by one’s parents—online or in person—ranges. The public humiliation of your father wearing a Speedo at the public pool is significantly more embarrassing than your mother kissing you goodbye on the cheek as you board the school bus, but a large middle-ground exists between the two. Where a comment or a “Like” falls on that spectrum of embarrassment closely models an equivalent in the offline world; there is no truly intrinsic standard of online embarrassment unique from that of our face-to-face interactions.
Facebook models these daily interactions in more ways than we usually recognize. “Liking” is usually a reaction to the person who posts it, having much less of a correlation to the post’s content. Writing, “OMGGGG SO GORG!!!” probably has nothing to do with the aesthetic quality of the poster’s complexion, outfit, or seductive pose. Receiving hundreds of likes for a comment in the Class of 2016 group is, more than anything else, a reflection of that freshman’s real-life likeability. Think, for a moment, about what determines whether or not we laugh at someone’s joke—if we like him, we laugh; if not, we don’t. If we are expecting humor from Quipfire! or a funny, well-liked friend, we will laugh when, in other contexts or said by people with whom we have no relationship, we certainly wouldn’t. When we first meet people, we quickly assess whether or not it is socially acceptable to laugh at their jokes before committing. “Liking” a Facebook post and deciding whether to laugh at a joke are both reflections of the poster or jokester’s likeability, not necessarily of the quality of content.
Borrowing from BlackBerry Messenger’s playbook, Facebook recently added a “Seen by…” feature, publicly displaying those who have viewed a post. Assuming Facebook is intent on modeling real life interactions, this addition follows directly in suit. Theoretically, reading a post or message and not responding is equivalent to staring back blankly into the face of a friend who is awaiting your response, or worse, walking away and ignoring the friend totally. “Seen by” eliminates the possibility of responding later, thereby forcing the immediacy of a normal conversation onto our online interactions (as opposed to email, for example). Can this also help us explain Facebook’s unwillingness to add a “Dislike” feature (similar to the thumbs-down on YouTube)? If “liking” represents social approval as opposed to that of content, the model for “disliking” would most closely resemble explicit social disapproval, namely telling a person “I dislike you” in a public setting. As this is clearly socially unacceptable in real life, Facebook has no need to institute it.
Clearly another factor at play is Facebook’s lack of incentive to introduce negative feedback (like a “Dislike” button)—why risk an inevitable decline in time logged-in from users whose News Feeds have transformed into a source of social insecurity or depression? As Megan Garber, a writer for The Atlantic, asserts in her recent article “When Your Facebook Friend is Racist,” Facebook is bent on fostering an “aggressively” positive environment in which even the casual argument is uncommon. This near absence of negativity creates an “atmosphere of social complicity,” which diminishes the potential for reactionary critical thinking and encourages complacency.
In their research published in the journal Computers in the Human Behavior, Psychologists Shanon Rauch and Kimberly Schanz report that high-frequency Facebook users respond more positively to racist content than low-frequency users. These findings narrow the type of real-life social interactions that Facebook models to only those that remain uncritical—those in which you don’t question or challenge what your friend is saying. Rauch and Schanz make a point to note that for now only indicates a correlation, not causation, but we’ve all experienced that feeling of mindless scrolling that characterizes most of our Facebook use. What if we reach a point where social media no longer reflects interpersonal relationships, but instead may actively dictate how they proceed? Could our real-life interactions increasingly begin to reflect the apathy of scrolling?
This societal epidemic of apathetic, uncritical absorption of information may not be too far off. Mark Zuckerberg recently introduced Facebook Home, the new quasi-operating system for Android phones, which replaces a traditional smartphone icon-based home screen with your News Feed. Zuckerberg taps into our societal addiction to 4G by replacing normal smartphone functionality with a Facebook-based variant. Imitating Apple’s iMessage model, text messages will be sent using Facebook’s Messages/Chat feature when possible, and revert to SMS when the recipient has not yet linked Facebook to his or her phone (like sending from iPhone Messages to an Android recipient).
And what does its new commercial claim, after cutting from clips of lonely individuals to friends laughing and checking their phones together? “No matter what you’re doing, your friends are there with you.” In between shots of the new interface are visual assurances that Facebook also connects you to people physically: a woman holding a child’s palm, a friend comforting another by rubbing her back, etc. Your Facebook-connected/dominated phone is now also the key to physical social interaction—without Facebook’s phone, you are lonely, sad, deprived of the normal social community that now pervades our culture. Facebook presents itself as integral to the new real life interaction, the new normal.
But only for now. The most intriguing part of this discussion is its constant evolution. While we tend to generally view the role of a technological advancement as occupying a new niche, namely filling logistical or social voids intrinsic to our changing lives, perhaps a better model for social media is that of compounding the niche of interpersonal relationships. Will Facebook Home effectively transform our phones from face-to-face social inhibitors, as they are currently viewed, into a pseudo-physical interaction? Or will the market reject Facebook’s attempt to dominate all aspects of the online social sphere, preferring instead to retain iPhones and the perceived difference between texting, Chat, and real life interactions? The real question that these social media force us to ask, though, is whether there truly is a difference at all.