Despite its benefits, one of the more worrisome things about Facebook is the fact that it can jeopardize real-life relationships. Clive Thompson discussed this thoroughly in his article “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” highlighting the idea that Facebook causes sociality to explode in “weak ties” (loose acquaintances).
Thompson poses an intriguing set of questions in regard to Facebook “friends” when he asks, “What sort of relationships are these? What does it mean to have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook? What kinds of friends are they, anyway?” Robin Dunbar, anthropologist, theorizes that every human has a “hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time” and that this number was about 150 social connections on average. Does Facebook enable the Dunbar number to grow? Or is it simply an example of how one cannot possibly be maintaining strong relationships with 150+ people, despite the digital ease of Facebook? Thompson argues that, while weak ties can “greatly expand your ability to solve problems,” he also contends that, “if you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships.” The concept of parasocial relationships is a somewhat frightening one when applied to Facebook. There is the idea that some people we are friends with on Facebook are so peripheral to our lives that we are engaged in nearly parasocial relationships with them – relationships that, though they may not be emotionally powerful, drain us and take up space in our Dunbar number. The ease of writing on someone’s “wall” or sending them a message in some cases obliterates the need to go see a friend in person. Danah Boyd asks this question of herself: Why go and visit the newborn child of one of your friends if you can just see pictures of him or her on Facebook? In essence, while Facebook has the capacity to keep us connected with friends, it also has the capacity to destroy (though it may be slowly and stealthily) part of what makes us human. I hate to think that the ease of communicating online is in some ways debasing the value of communicating face-to-face, simply out of mere convenience – in much the same way that the cellphone and text messaging have, but to a much greater degree.
Another interesting idea that Thompson brought up was that “our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet,” a statement that I don’t think is entirely true. Thompson quotes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci: “You can’t play with your identity if your audience is always checking up on you.” But you absolutely can toy with your identity given these circumstances – if anything, there is a greater incentive to tweak your identity with the knowledge that someone, somewhere is always checking up on you. People who aim to be someone they are not on the internet (whether it be something as obvious as changing a name or something more subtle such as creating an information profile that makes you seem “cooler” than you really are) aim to grab the attention of others. They strive for an audience. Thompson hypothesizes that, “In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself” – and yet, people so often try to be someone they’re not (in real-life and on the internet) that I hesitate to think people are seeing themselves more clearly.