Everyone else is on Facebook. Why aren't you?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 14 2009 4:56 PM

You Have No Friends

Everyone else is on Facebook. Why aren't you?

Also in Slate, Michael Agger analyzes the competition between Google and Facebook for our social-networking loyalty.

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Yet of the many concerns about Facebook, Koppelman's is the most easily addressed. Last year, the site added a series of fine-grained privacy controls that let you choose which friends see what information about you. Your college friends can see one version of your profile, your high-school friends another, and your family yet another; if you want, you can let everyone see essentially nothing about you.

Retelle's worry that Facebook demands a lot of work is also somewhat misguided. It's true that some people spend a lot of time on it, but that's because they're having fun there; if you're not, you can simply log in once or twice a week just to accept or reject friends. Even doing nothing and waiting for others to friend you is enough: You're establishing a presence for other people to connect with you, which is the site's main purpose.

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That brings us to Harris' argument: What's the social utility to Facebook—why should you join? Like with e-mail and cell phones, there are many, and as you begin to use it, you'll notice more and different situations in which it proves helpful. In general, Facebook is a lubricant of social connections. With so many people on it, it's now the best, fastest place online to find and connect with a specific person—think of it as a worldwide directory, or a Wikipedia of people. As a result, people now expect to find you on Facebook—whether they're contacting you for a job or scouting you out for a genius grant.

True, you might not want people to be able to follow your life—it's no great loss to you if your long-lost college frenemy can't find you. But what about your old fling, your new fling, your next employer, or that friend-of-a-friend you just met at a party who says he can give you some great tips on your golf swing? Sure, you can trade e-mail addresses or phone numbers, but in many circles Facebook is now the expected way to make these connections. By being on Facebook, you're facilitating such ties; without it, you're missing them and making life difficult for those who went looking for you there.

Skeptics often suggest that online social networks foster introverted, anti-social behavior—that we forge virtual connections at the expense of real-life connections. But only someone who's never used Facebook would make that argument. Nobody avoids meeting people in real life by escaping to the Web. In fact, the opposite seems true: Short, continuous, low-content updates about the particulars of your friends' lives—Bob has the flu, Barbara can't believe what just happened on Mad Men, Sally and Ned are no longer on speaking terms—deepen your bonds with them. Writer Clive Thompson has explored this phenomenon, what social scientists call "ambient awareness." Following someone through his status updates is not unlike sitting in a room with him and semiconsciously taking note of his body language, Thompson points out. Just as you can sense his mood from the rhythm of his breathing, sighing, and swearing, you can get the broad outlines of his life from short updates, making for a deeper conversation the next time you do meet up.

It's this benefit of Facebook that seems to hook people in the end: Their friendships seem to demand signing up. Last year, Darcy Stockton, a fashion photographer in New York, held nothing back in describing her hatred of Facebook to the Observer. "If you have time to network through a site like that, you aren't working enough," she said. "I just don't have the time or the ability to keep up with yet another social networking site in my free time. I feel there's other things and real experiences I could be having in real life instead of wasting my free time on Facebook."

Stockton now has 250 Facebook friends. In an e-mail, she explained that she'd decided to join the site when her friends migrated over from MySpace. She added, "Thank you for making me eat my words!"

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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