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The Nature of Facebook Friendships and Voyeurism
Once a Facebooker has constructed his profile, carefully presenting himself to the world, he is set free in a cyberworld of friends, groups, games, and light-hearted discussions. It’s no wonder, then, that Facebook is the favored online hangout of teens and college kids, what could be called the greatest time-waster since 2004 (the year of its birth). The question becomes: what is the nature of human interaction on social-networking sites? There are preferred ways to communicate on Facebook, almost a series of unspoken rules that govern online interaction. If there are different procedures on Facebook—“friending” and “unfriending,” lurking and Facebook stalking—then I have to wonder if there’s a marked difference between Facebook friendships and their real-life counterparts.
"I don't want to feel alone"
The 20th century brought revolutionary advancements in almost every aspect of human life—transportation, technology, medicine, and health. With these changes came new concerns about the way people socialize. In the olden days, families generally stayed together; neighbors knew one another; and small towns were hubs of intimate relationships. But when people became more mobile, free to spread to the corners of the globe, some feared that society would become impersonal, people isolated from one another.
In The New York Times, Clive Thompson described the emerging popularity of social-networking sites as a “reaction to social isolation, the modern American disconnectedness.” People either have to travel extensively for work, or they work from home. With TVs, computers, and websites that let people order groceries to be delivered right to their door, it has become frighteningly feasible never to have to leave the house. Ironically, the same people can turn to Internet tools like Facebook and Twitter to “feel less alone.”
Facebook stalking, loitering, and voyeurism
Kevin Smith’s film Mallrats, about disaffected youth loitering in the mall all day, has the tagline: “They’re not there to shop. They’re not there to work. They’re just there.” The tagline could apply to most Facebookers. Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University, likens using social networking sites to hanging out at the mall: “there’s a certain lack of purpose to just hanging out in public, and it’s hard to justify if you don’t have a lot of free time” (qtd. in Cassidy). In a sense, Facebook has become the “de facto public commons” of the 21st century.
If you thought living in a tight-knit community meant no privacy, with everyone knowing every bit of juicy gossip about everyone else, then imagine what it’s like on Facebook. With the News Feed feature, users can instantly see every new nugget of information about their friends. News Feed is, as Thompson put it, “a single page that—like a social gazette from the 18th century—delivered a long list of up-to-the-minute gossip about their friends, around the clock, all in one place.” It’s as if people took the fears of social isolation and ran in the opposite direction, embracing an intense, albeit different, mode of social interaction.
One girl said about observing her peers on Facebook: “‘Facebook is extremely voyeuristic—there’s something great, and at the same time, creepy, about knowing when someone you haven’t talked to in 5 years broke up with a boyfriend who you never even met’” (qtd. in Pempek et al. 235). Watts explained that people today are so used to the idea that everyone is connected online that it’s no longer surprising. “If I had to guess why sites like Facebook are so popular, I would say it doesn’t have anything to do with networking at all,” he said. “It’s voyeurism and exhibitionism. People like to express themselves, and they are curious about other people” (qtd. in Cassidy).
Users even came up with a term for lurking on people's profiles: Facebook stalking. Presumably, if one’s privacy controls are set accordingly, then only one’s friends will be lurking on the profile, so it seems ridiculous to worry about it. At the same time, though, it is unsettling wondering who, at any moment, may be checking up on your relationship status or clicking through pictures of someone in her home, or at a party where she had had a few drinks. Facebook is incredibly voyeuristic, but users actively invite people to peek into their private lives. And if the fascination with celebrities and important figures is any indication, people are naturally curious about the hidden lives of others. Observing is a natural human response.
Relationships made effortless
Facebook’s members invariably cite its usefulness for keeping up with friends, but just how close and intimate are these Facebook friendships? One undeniable benefit of the website is that it “enables users to forgo the exertion that real relationships entail” (Cassidy). Friendships for lazy people, in other words? One Harvard graduate pointed out: “It’s a way of maintaining a friendship without having to make any effort whatsoever. And the interface provides all the information you need to do that: birthdays, pictures, message boards, contact info, etc.” (qtd. in Cassidy).
“Signing a Facebook wall is a lot easier and less time consuming than picking up the phone to call a friend. Not many in college have the time for that,” said a college student in a study of Facebook use (Pempek et al. 231). Indeed, for all the time that young people spend on Facebook (on average about 30 minutes a day), the direct interactions between friends are brief and fast-paced. Posting a message on a wall takes all of a few seconds—just enough time to share a joke or catch up—and then it’s on to another page. It is fast and convenient and requires less emotional investment. Posting a quip on someone’s wall is certainly less of a hassle than calling that person and having to engage in a prolonged conversation. The person may only be a Facebook friend, an acquaintance who, in real life, one wouldn’t spend much time talking to.
Facebook friendships can be as close and involved as the user desires. Calling a friend that I haven’t seen since high school might be awkward. How can I carry on a full conversation with someone I haven’t seen for years without some degree of discomfort and uncertaincy? A quick, casual comment on a friend’s wall (“Hey, what’s up, chica?” or “Happy birthday!”) is much easier. Catching up is made faster and virtually pain-free. Some Facebook friendships are from so long ago that they strain my memory—a member from my Girl Scout troop or my third-grade Australian pen pal. (Which raises the question: how far back can Facebook friendships go? I do have friends that I’ve known since preschool.)
Other friends I added after one encounter. I worked with a fellow lifeguard for one day; we talked about our classes, and our favorite books, and we kept our fingers crossed for thunder so we could blow the whistle. Another time I met a friend of a friend at lunch at an outdoor table on campus; I recognized her years later when my friend invited her to a party. Even after these brief encounters I wanted to friend these people so I wouldn’t forget them. They’re tenuous relationships, to be sure, but adding them to my list of friends is like adding strands to a spiderweb. The web grows larger and stronger the more people I accept into my circle.
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Cassidy, John. “Me Media.” The New Yorker 15 May 2006. NewYorker.com. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.
Pempek, Tiffany A., Yevdokiya A. Yermolayeva, and Sandra L. Calvert. “College students’ social networking experiences on Facebook.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (2009): 227–238. ScienceDirect. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.
Thompson, Clive. “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” The New York Times 7 Sept. 2008. Nytimes.com. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.