Sunday, October 3, 2010

2,000 "facebook" friends

“Billy” is a college student in Columbia, Maryland and an avid facebooker. He updates his status multiple times a day, through not just facebook but also twitter and tweetdeck. He responds to people's comments, “likes” a lot of different pages, and shares links from youtube. Billy is also all about sharing his private information. On his profile you can find out about Billy's interests, education history, activities, favorite music/movies/ TV shows, how to contact him, who his siblings are, where he lives, etc.

I went to high school with Billy and had a class with him. He's a nice, but quiet person. Once you get to know him, or once you read his facebook information, you learn that he has high functioning autism. So communicating and relating to people is more difficult for Billy, especially in person. However, with the advent of facebook and other social networking outlets, Billy is able to effortlessly interact with as many people as he wants. On facebook, he has close to 2,000 friends. But then that makes me wonder, how close is Billy to these 2,000 people labeled “friends.” I've come to realize there is a difference between friends (people you interact with in person) vs. facebook friends (people you interact with through a computer). Does facebook give you a personal connection? Or is it merely a computer connection?

Facebook is a way to reach out to others... to “establish an affinity; to feel a connection; just to interact.” But I don’t think facebook cultivates “real” relationships, such as people you'd call to celebrate your birthday or invite to your wedding. Facebook does give people the opportunity to create and maintain relationships, but I still think the real work is done in person. I suppose it depends on individual definitions of “friendship,” but facebook has certainly developed a new type of friend.

I think what people share on facebook is different than what they share in person because they are constantly aware that facebook is a public space, so sharing private information has its limits. Billy shares details about his day, what he likes, what he doesn't like, and talks about his interests with people... but it doesn't go deeper than that. So I believe facebook produces some sort of surface level communication. How much of a connection are you making with someone you've never met in person? Does technology have this implicit barrier between your connection with others?


  1. I think you make a good poing about connecting with people you've never met in person. A recent documentary-ish/indie movie "Catfish" explores this aspect of Facebook and social networking. Check out the trailer:

    Personally I've never used Facebook to meet a stranger, but I have used it to keep in touch with interesting people that I've only met once or twice. I think that Facebook offers a networking outlet that is less personal than giving someone your phone number, but still personal enough that you might want to meet up with the person at some point in the future.

    Who knows when I might be lost in Illinois and my only place to crash will be with a friend of the ex-girlfriend of my old roommate that I met one time at a Halloween party where he was dressed as Speed Racer.

  2. Great distinction here between sparking a relationship and maintaining a relationship.

    You also make a keen observation in noting that Facebook users are always aware that they interact in a public space. I noted too in my post that the subject knew somebody was always "watching" on Facebook. This limits privacy, as you wrote, and it is clear when comparing connections over Facebook to connections in "real life" there is a key element missing: intimacy. The sharing of an anecdote, trading of secrets, the non-word noises of gasping and laughter, tone and inflection and subtle body language. All of this is self-censored, to varying degrees online.

    So while a great tool for maintaing a relationship with someone who already knows your quirks, it is very difficult to be honest enough to start a friendship.