Thursday, 25 March 2010

Facebook – is the art of communication being lost?

Type the word ‘Facebook’ into the Google search engine, and a grand total of 2,310,000,000 matches will appear on your computer screen. Said website, founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, all Computer Science students at Harvard University, has become ubiquitous as the primary means of communication for a generation of not only teenagers, but adults as well. Millions of companies lose hundreds of millions of pounds through staff being distracted from work and compelled to log onto Facebook to look at drunken photos from the night before, whilst millions of students’ revision timetables and essay deadlines are forgotten about in the clamour to ‘like’ their friend’s Facebook status, or buy a new tank on ‘Fishville’. However does Facebook actually allow its users to truly communicate? As far as I can see, it fails to do so. Whilst the art of communication may have been degraded to the point that ‘commenting’ on a friend’s status passes for interaction, there is a certain hopelessness surrounding the phenomenon. For one could remain in one’s room all day, completely ignoring the people they live with, i.e. their actual friends, and wile away hours ‘talking’ on Facebook ‘chat’ to people they barely know and feel they had communicated, made friends and got to know the recipient of their correspondence. Facebook has been greatly distorted from what its creators intended, and has become less a network for university friends and more a lifestyle. People spend hours sifting through photos they have been ‘tagged’ in by friends, and indeed spend hours ‘tagging’ their friends in said photos, in order to find an appropriate ‘profile picture’ so that people visiting their profile will judge them favourably. Many spend hours ‘adding’ people from school they have never, or at least rarely spoken to in order to make it appear that they are popular. At university, one feels compelled to have more than 400 friends on one’s Facebook profile in order to feel normal, to feel popular and accepted. However since when has it been the case that listing a large number of people as ‘friends’ on a social networking website has signified popularity? Surely a friend is somebody who cares about you, is interested in spending time with you and willing to talk to you? If anything the ‘friends’ made on social networking sites are nothing more than ‘friends of convenience’, who want you to make up the numbers on their profile so they can look as popular and well-liked as society dictates that they should.

Yet furthermore there is a certain vanity to Facebook, a certain boastfulness outside of the ‘how many friends do you have?’ lottery. Some of my acquaintance will not allow themselves to be ‘tagged’ in pictures where they appear anything other than ‘acceptable’, perhaps because they are embarrassed, but perhaps because they do not wish to be judged. Yet the point missed by such people is that, if somebody with a camera has managed to capture a photograph of you looking, shall we say, ‘worse for wear’, then the likelihood is that your friends will have seen said apparition as well. Not only this, but if one feels one’s friends will judge them for having an ‘unacceptable’ picture tagged on Facebook, then surely they are friends of the lowest calibre, and not worth bothering with? Personally given the wealth of shall we say ‘unsatisfactory’ photographic material featuring myself on Facebook, it would be stupefying for me to ‘de-tag’ every time I witnessed myself pulling ‘a face only a mother could love’, for my friends have almost certainly seen said face before. Following the conclusion of High School, many people who perhaps were not as ‘popular’, although popularity in the various incarnations I have witnessed it entails a vanity I personally find repulsive, go to University and meet a new group of people who accept them for who they are. Understandably some of these people wish to display their ‘new lives’ on Facebook, and through ‘status updates’ which have become tantamount to official proclamations or press releases for certain people, they try and persuade their former tormentors, or former social betters that they too are popular, they too have been accepted, and they too now go out regularly and have an amazing time. This poses two questions, the first being would the former social betters said statuses are directed at even care? Yet the second for me is more important, as it must be asked, how does a Facebook profile demonstrate success? If anything for somebody to have a Facebook profile with thousands of ‘tagged’ pictures, many of which said profile holder laboriously ‘tagged’ themselves, and detailed information about their character, interests, activities and music tastes, shows that somebody has spent a little too much time on the computer as opposed to actually socialising with their friends. Or perhaps I’m the only one who would draw such a conclusion.

In addition to the issues of vanity and the pathetic nature of people attempting to impress old adversaries with their new ‘successful’ Facebook profiles, there is the issue of pre-judging that as far as I can see is endemically associated with Facebook use. For when one logs on to Facebook to check the profile of somebody they have just met, or may not have spoken to yet, the ‘interests’, ‘about me’, and ‘favourite music’ sections, in addition to the number of friends and tagged pictures, can often decide the opinion one develops of somebody they have perhaps never even seen. Now forgive me if I’m missing the point here, but is such a phenomenon not deeply sickening and off-putting? I would hate to feel that somebody is willing to converse with me simply because I like ‘appropriate music’, or from my profile I appear to ‘go out’ sufficiently to be acceptable, or because I have just enough ‘friends’ listed on my profile to be considered normal. Obviously if somebody put ‘shooting prostitutes’ and ‘decapitating rabbits’ as their primary interests, and their hobbies as ‘stealing cars’ then yes, perhaps they are not an appropriate person to be associating with. However examples such as this are extreme and thankfully, at least in my experience, very much sporadic. However despite the rather lengthy list of objections I appear to have built up, I am yet to arrive at what is arguably the most dangerous. That is the phenomenon of ‘profile stalking’, and I don’t merely mean by paedophiles or other such deviants from the path of the law. As far as I can see, ‘Facebook stalking’ by ordinary people goes hand in hand with all that has been discussed above. If one doesn’t know somebody, then why not see if they have a Facebook account, after all everybody seems to. After finding said person, why not have a look at their interests, what groups they are a part of and their profile pictures to see if they are normal/and or acceptable? Is this really what our society has degenerated into? Rather than attempting to speak to people on a level, perhaps find a common interest that may generate into a friendship, most would rather sit on a computer, not speaking to anybody merely ‘liking’ the status of somebody they met on a drunken night out that is already near-forgotten, or ‘adding’ a friend they have said hello to twice.

One could argue that as a Facebook account holder, albeit not as obsessive a user as many others, I ought not to be calling the kettle black. To a certain extent this may be true, and the above critique was certainly not intended to vilify Facebook entirely. There are aspects of said website that are deeply beneficial, specifically the ability to keep in touch with those you are unable to see face-to-face, the university networks that allow for close contact with Student Unions and the ability to present one's views relatively freely with little fear of reprisal. However I do vehemently believe that Facebook since its inception has had a detrimental effect on the art of communication, as people become less and less disposed to actually talk to others and sacrifice real-life interaction for a sham virtual manifestation. However Facebook alone cannot be blamed for this, as a host of websites began the procedure, including Myspace and other such portals of false communication. Yet given that Facebook is now one of the most-visited websites in the world, and has become a way of life for many people, is it time for us to begin demanding our lives back? A not insignificant number of people nowadays ask 'how did we remember birthdays, or get in contact with people before Facebook?' Well people must have managed it, just as they did before mobile phones, before any automated form of communication. I write this as somebody wishing to point out the futility of basing one's life around Facebook, not to encourage anybody to stop using said website. Enjoy the beneficial aspects of Facebook without becoming caught up in the game of popularity, appearance, and vanity that so many unfortunately appear to have done. Reclaim the art of communication, talk to your friends, go out, spend time together; or one day you may wake up and realise you've done nothing with your life besides build a virtual existence characterised by popularity, success and happiness that is sadly valueless in the real world.

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