Why I Hate Facebook, The Anti-Social Network

4 02 2009

Like the Borg, resistance to Facebook seems futile.

In the early days, it was easy to ignore. After all, Facebook was only one of a growing crowd of 2.0 websites and services.  There was MySpace, Friendster LinkedIn and other emerging technologies competing for my limited bandwidth, not to mention IM, texting and even a seldom-used email listserve for my Burning Man campmates.  With so many options for communicating to my tribe, Facebook was the least interesting of the bunch.  But somewhere along the way, many of these other technologies either lost their relevance or settled into a specific functional niche and seemingly out of nowhere, Facebook took the lead as THE social network to join.  This digital Darwinism, coupled with the ever-growing number of requests to join in my inbox finally worn me down.

So join I did, figuring Facebook was now a required card in the online poker hand that is my professional career.  A few months ago I registered, uploaded a profile picture and started exploring the features.  Since then I have friended a mix of about 125 people – current friends, younger family members, old school chums, ex-girlfriends and a few professional contacts.  I launched a Facebook fan club for Gomi Style, my online DIY video series, as well as a second group, dedicated to robots and telepresence.   I joined groups too, with shared interests like video art, Sarah Palin bashing and DIY.  I uploaded videos of my new projects and links, I wrote pithy and frequent status updates, and commented on a very small number of daily friends updates – Its hard to reply to every flake when one is buried in snow – and tried to give Facebook an sincere spin by migrating the bulk of my online networking to this (alleged) network.   I had to draw the line at playing Mob Wars, trading green patches, and otherwise embracing the hundreds of 3rd party applications that promised to suck away every last bit of my attention.  Games and widgets aside though, I committed, installing the Facebook App on my iPhone, and methodically checking and updating my status many times a day in an effort to master this social network and gain a realtime pipeline to some of the most relevant people in my life.  What I experienced was the opposite of what I expected. 

A technological lifetime ago, sometime around 2007, prior to the convenience of Facebook and social networks in general; people had a natural buffer of time and space between themselves and their larger circle of friends and family.   Sure, we complained that keeping in touch was a chore, but most of us secretly relied on these hurdles to afford us some measure of control over our personal interactions.  Over the last decade, these barriers have slowly been eroding as we become more accustomed to the ease of social contact via the web – and Facebook has emerged as the leader of the bunch, recently estimated to have one out of every 50 people on earth as a member.  How could anyone not find Facebook a stunning example of technology’s ability to flatten the world and allow that old friend currently working in Shanghai and the guy in the cubicle next to you to both be a single democratizing click away?

Given these facts, why do I consider Facebook the antisocial network?  For one, I can see the updates, comments and activities of far too many friends and acquaintances.  By any measure, do I really need to know that some guy who I was in the Boy Scouts with 25 years ago is considering gum surgery, or look at yet another photo album of drunken partiers I don’t recognize? Sure, the onslaught of updates can be funny, informative, surreal, or heart-felt.  Or just plain self-indulgent.  How quickly the novelty of always-on knowledge wears thin.

Often these updates, notices and invites beg a response, or at least an acknowledgement.  While it is pretty straight forward, even on Facebook, to wish someone a happy birthday, it gets murkier knowing the correct response to an old classmate’s daily expression of ennui.  Worse, I now find myself updating my status, posting videos and roommate notices with the wide-eyed hope and expectation that my stream of personal activities will get the attention of my network and inspire enthusiastic replies. 

One reason this always disappoints me is a result of what I refer to as the Facebook Effect:  More than ever before, we are becoming comfortable NOT responding to the heartfelt announcements, confessions and daily updates from our friends and loved ones.  While glancing at, and essentially ignoring the chaos of daily life can be a healthy defense mechanism in real-life, having those traits on Facebook has a hardening quality that I don’t like, especially in myself.

The problem lies in the numbing effects of so much data from so many people.  Everyone knows that we all experience daily ups and downs, birthdays, professional milestones, etc… and we increasingly share these things on Facebook.  But in some ways, seeing the gigs of ex-classmates and birth announcements of old friends only reminds me that I am not really in touch with them any more with Facebook than I was before I joined. 

In fact, where previously it was easy to let old acquaintances fade away naturally, Facebook now serves as a daily reminder of just how far those relationships have faded from view.  But instead of inspiring me to get more active and involved with the 125+ people in my list, it has the opposite effect of turning up the heat on the guilt gumbo that I already had simmering on the back burner. 

Facebook makes me feel less connected, not more, yet I still check it throughout the day; looking, lurking, updating and occasionally commenting.   I can’t seem to stop, hoping I will start to click with it, not wanting to lose the zeitgeist.  I guess resistance really IS futile.  Maybe a Twitter account will help cure me…