Sunday, July 27, 2014


One of the things that always fascinates me about technology is how it changes the way we do things. I've developed a particular interest in the way social networking has changed the way people interact with each other, but even more so, how our perceptions change as the result of new communications channels.

I've already wrote about how social networking is changing the way young adults develop their social circles and how the way they perform in those circles is different from the times when all social interaction involved physical presence (a voice phone call being the exception).

Now I'm starting to see how Facebook is changing the way we present ourselves to our friends and even the relationship parameters we establish with online friends.

Let's start with the way things used to be. Before the internet, your friends were people you interacted with on a regular basis. In person, for the most part. You may have spoken on the phone, but that was usually only because time and or circumstance didn't allow you to be in the same place with your friend(s). More interesting is that although you shared your thoughts and experiences with your friends, it was selective. You might tell certain people what was happening in your family, but not others. The same was true for your love life, school, health, finances, job, interests, hobbies, etc. Some people knew certain things about you, but definitely not everything. It was filtered, and you did the filtering. Only your closest friends knew more, but they still might not know all that there was to know.

Although this might be a challenge to keep track of, there were often very good reasons why you didn't share specific aspects of your life with certain people. You might not have told most of your friends about your sex life because of both privacy issues and peer pressure. You might not have told your closest friends about your secret love of death metal because none of them would approve. But Alex would. So you shared that with him. Your friends were kept on very specific levels of trust and sharing for what you thought were very good social reasons.

Now, especially with Facebook, the playing field is perfectly level. A friend is a friend. There are no 'levels' of trust. If one friend can see your likes, your comments, your status updates, your photo collection, they all can. Not only that, there are intricate fingers of connectivity that spread access to these personal elements about you to people you may not even know, or at least, people who you are not friends with.

So when we make a comment, or update our status on Facebook, when we add pictures of that wild party we attended (and perhaps got wild at ourselves), when we like a link someone shared about the rights of homosexuals, we forget that we have little control over how far reaching that tidbit of information about ourselves will spread. And it might just happen that a friend, who we have a close relationship with, but does not share the same values we do, is now aware of your leanings. A friend of a friend might know that you're into death metal, even if you were trying to keep that between a select group of people.

But it even goes deeper than that. Because part of the challenge of text-based communications is lack of context. You might make a comment that your closest friends know is laced with sarcasm and wit. But other friends, who may not know you that well, take the comment literally and flame you for it. Worse, they might not even give you the benefit of the doubt, or the opportunity to defend your comment and just start trash talking you with their friends, who may or may not be your friends. Then all hell breaks loose.

Then there's the way we treat 'friends' on social networks. I have Facebook friends who are family. Then there are people that I've known for years and have actually met with in real life. Regularly. Then there are people who I used to work with, but not anymore, and I may or may not have met with them lately. Same goes with school. Also people I met learning acting, improv and volunteering in the arts. How many of your friends have you seen in person in the last week? Month? Year? 5 years? Would you be sharing the things you regularly share on Facebook with people you haven't seen in 5 years were it not for the internet? If one of your Facebook friends said something online that you thought was uninformed, racist, bigoted, chauvinist, or just plain inappropriate, would you call them out? Why not? Would they call YOU out for the same thing? Would you expect them to? If a friend hadn't communicated with you on Facebook in more than a year, not even to leave a comment on your posts, would you consider un-friending them? Why not? More importantly, how would they react if they discovered that they had been un-friended. Would you care? How would YOU react to being unfriended? One 'friend' I used to have, didn't like a comment I had made about how some animals die during rodeos. Well, that was it. I was labelled 'one of those people' and was promptly un-friended. I honestly don't care, but I did think that was harsh considering that I didn't get a chance to defend myself first. The comment was taken completely out of context. But it really opened my eyes to what this brave new world was now like. I also learned the hard way that context is so easily twisted into a perception that is quite different from your intent. And there's not a damned thing you can do about it. Well, except quit Facebook.

Online social networking is changing the way we relate to people that we used to handle with personally customized levels of trust, access, interaction and presence, and places like Facebook are a whole new universe. How are you adjusting?

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