Sunday, October 18, 2009
The Myface Monstrocity
"You have 1 new friend request," sits in the top right corner of my Facebook homepage. A complete stranger to social networking sites might be a bit more excited at such an occurence, but my extensive experience with social networking websites tells me I have nothing I should jump out of my chair for. When the requester's identity is revealed, I ask myself aloud, "who the hell...?" After a brief period of "facebook stalking," I discover that my new "friend" is a freshman at my old high school, some one whom I have never met and probably never will meet.
Such experiences as the one described above have prompted researchers to ask the question, "are Facebook and other social networking websites like Xanga and Myspace actually good for social capital?" Researchers at Michigan State University claim that more Facebook use is associated with higher social capital, and that Facebook proves even more helpful in its ability to create "bridging social capital;" But is it not possible that this association between more Facebook use and higher social capital only reflects social capital created outside of facebook, face-to-face? If some one who is popular in the real world, not on the internet, decides to make a Facebook, that person will receive countless friend requests because of relationships created in the real world, not on the internet. Facebook did not actually increase Mr. Popular's social capital, but merely reflected it.
Thus, it is my opinion that relationships created through social networking websites- "facebook friendships"- and face-to-face friendships are two entirely separate entities; facebook friendships, being based off of an online exchange of information, do not result in enjoyable face-to-face relationships. In fact, a relationship having existed entirely over facebook can result in insecurity and strained conversation when the two correspondents are actually forced to interact in person. A friendship created entirely on facebook is a facade, only reflecting or "maintaining" an actual friendship that already existed because of face-to-face interaction; but a facebook friendship can never create anything more in person than what already existed before facebook interaction. Facebook only increases social capital in that it connects people so that they organize a meeting in person to create a face-to-face relationship.
For example: In 10th grade, a girl by the name of Ryan Carter and I, two people who had never even met in person but attended the same high school, became friends on facebook. Shortly after this friend request was confirmed, Ryan and I began talking using the "facebook chat" utility. We talked about music, school, movies; typical high school bullcrap. It was not long after we began our "facebook friendship," however, that I noticed how strained things were between us in person. In the mornings before classes, if we ended up in the same circle of kids killing time before classes, our conversations came sluggishly, if at all. Facebook had betrayed us! While my homepage proudly displayed "Malcolm is now friends with Ryan Carter," our face-to-face interactions said quite the opposite. Is it possible that we were both just shy? Yes. But there is undeniably something unnatural and disconcerting in knowing so much about some one before ever actually speaking to them.
In addition to the strain social networking websites create for relationships based entirely on internet interaction, Facebook and the internet in general have made interactions with people simply mean less. On facebook, you can have conversations with 10 people at once! You can make 100 friends in a day! Sure, these conversations may be slow and/or devoid of any substance, and the friendships may be with people that you actually despise; but it can be done! Trust me- I know. It is focusing on these numbers of friends and conversations, and not that they are "devoid of substance," that leads so many people to believe that facebook is beneficial for social capital.
Some might even suggest that online dating is proof of social networking websites' ability to create friendships and increase social capital. As with facebook, this only improves social capital in that it creates "bridging social capital." Two people will not become best friends or soulmates online (although weddings on World of Warcraft are a fairly common occurence,) but social networking websites have connected them so that they may meet in person and create a face-to-face friendship. Without face-to-face interaction, a person is only their profile and a chatbox in the corner of the computer screen.