Psychology of Facebook: The Facebook Self vs. The Real Self

The term 7 degrees of separation was once bandied around as a way of showing how most people are 7 connections away from any other person in the world. The advent of Facebook has made this figure shrink to a scary 4 degrees of separation, but is being this connected to people really such a good thing for our psyche? In a world where we are regularly displaying every facet of ourselves publicly, be it tweeting or vicariously live uploading stills from a party you’re at- do we need the extra pressure that we’re actually shrinking the world as we know it? There are other elements to consider through living a Facebook life, as using a social network service can have many negative aspects to it.

These issues revolve around common human feelings such as jealousy, inadequacy and even forms of bullying, but because we are dealing with something in the digital sphere we need to learn new rules to navigate this tricky landscape. What can we learn from the Facebook generation and what does this mean for the future of human interactions?

Cameron Marlow, in-house research scientist at Facebook, said: “We found that the degrees of separation between any two Facebook users is smaller than the commonly cited six degrees, and has been shrinking over the past three years as Facebook has grown.”

This is something we can all relate to, as I often find that people who I think have nothing in common are often linked on Facebook (or LinkedIn to a lesser effect) and though they are connected they may not be very close. Do you know the number of your Facebook friends? Writing this article made me check my total which is 247, though friends are a term I use loosely. Acquaintances, friend of friends, someone from a course I once did, an ex-boyfriend I like to spy on- all these connections, but a term which is a misnomer.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Facebook as this service spans generations with children, parents and even grandparents using the service for all sorts of reasons.

I’ll start at the beginning- looking at just what Facebook is used for.

Facebook: the plan

Founded in 2004, Facebook was originally designed to be a way that people at university could keep in contact with each other. It evolved into a service which let them plan events, schedule classes around friends and post pictures. It opened for public use a little later and has since spread into brands and all sorts of marketing initiatives as well. At its heart, it’s a way of sharing details, photos and events in one place, and the unification is why it’s so popular as it takes the best parts if Flickr, YouTube and Twitter and presents it a in a neat clean package.

Facebook ostracizing

It sounds great on paper to have a service which allows you to do so many things, but there are dark sides to this as well. Cyber bullying is rife in the world at the moment and we’ve seen cases of Facebook suicide where people have posted nasty things on walls and generally made one feel an outsider, or not reacted to a plea for help. It’s one thing to feel alienated at school, but you do feel that at home on your PC you should be immune from this type of behaviour. Sadly, as digital advances so do forms of being aggressive with it, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Outright bullying is unquestionably wrong but Facebook etiquette has many grey areas. Politics about who you friend, de-friend or like can all lead to different types of validation and I have ‘friends’ on my Facebook page that have a friend network of over a thousand people. People can get hurt at surprising things, and those who reject friend requests or detag themselves in photos may be surprised to realize that other people notice and care. Each individual cares on a different scale, but there’s no denying you might ultimately hurt someone unintentionally as they may place a different value on FB interaction to you.

This has been parodied in many places, a great one to look at is one of the new South Park episodes, ‘You have 0 Friends’. Here Kip, a lonely kid enjoyed an online friendship with Stan, who found himself ostracized by being associated with a non popular kid. Stan is initially averse to joining in online, as he suggests to Kyle, “that we should be outside playing video games” rather than online networking, Nonetheless he becomes drawn into social networking and finds it difficult to navigate in terms of understand friendship dynamics- which is equally true in the real world.

The Facebook Self vs. The Real Self

Presentation is difficult on Facebook as you have two channels- what you place on those pages and what your connections do. As a user you do have controls to edit things out-such as detagging unflattering photos, but this aspect leads to a split psyche as the very act of editing yourself online lead to a confusion of the self about the actual real event- and what is real and what you present to be real gets blurred.

Salford University runs a course on Facebook where they assess the growth of the site and look at the psychology behind user’s interactions. Adam Galpin, one of the tutors, said, “There is a huge demand in industry to understand audiences and how they access the media. The way people interact with each other and the sheer amount of information available has changed in a short space of time. It’s not uncommon nowadays for people to be sat in front of the television with their laptop on, while talking on the phone.”

The Facebook Photo: Living through a lens in Updates

The editing of one’s self and how you display yourself online can actually have offline consequences as you can start to discover you are living your life through a lens. If this disease hasn’t hit you yet I’m sure you’ve noticed some of your friends vicariously taking images of themselves at an event- before the event has even started. I have noticed people so desperate to get pictures of themselves drinking and having a good time at weddings and parties that they ARE NOT having a good time- they are merely taking photos, and the dispersion of real life activity into perceived fun is a worrying trend. Though you may be sharing the impression of ‘having fun’; your actual enjoyment level is minimized, and should you enjoy without capturing, you can feel your experience is somehow lessened by the lack of pictures proving what ‘fun’ you had- a worrying circular issue with no real solution.

This in turn leads to Facebook as an aspirational place where we only see images of people we know wearing their finest, looking great and doing interesting things. When we view this from a messy flat in tracksuit bottoms we can feel inadequate and thus we respond with an overly faux glam impression of our life- we are closer to all these people than ever before but we are also alienated due to the lies of the self we are displaying. Rumours of a Facebook phone will further tie us in to this process, as should Facebook truly enter the mobile marketplace you’ll be forever connected and I’m not quite sure what this would mean for those already overdosing on updating.

IRL friend and Facebook friends

We have looked at the differences between how we act online and how we behave in real life, but it’s important to note that friends co-exist in different groups as well. One may be perceived as popular through having a large friend group online, but this may not translate into everyday human activities such as face to face meetups or phone calls. This strange confluence between appearing popular and actually feeling very lonely is one of the disparities of modern day living.

Sarah Whiter, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies and Early Years from Leeds Metropolitan University says, “It has been suggested that the youth of today are embroiled in narcissistic self-promotion with scant regard for privacy or consequence. They pursue the goal of high visibility and collect ‘friends’ online in the way previous generations of children might have collected football marbles. In essence, there is a cultural shift that lauds self-promotion. Facebook is for many the tool by which they form and sustain social capital.”

She goes on to share that for many the friends they have online are actually viewed as a certain type of currency as this is how the new generation chooses to socialize, so you whilst you might think the ‘face time’ is more important the online connections, that’s not necessarily the case. “There is evidence to suggest that social media is reshaping cultural views and accepted behaviours. It is becoming more commonplace to spend long periods of time online making virtual friends and alliances. There is a positive side however to this technological determinism. Through social interaction online there can be a new sense of identity, one which is decentered and multiple. It is possible to express oneself within a group of like-minded individuals. This less egocentric view can promote ‘virtual communities’; communities that care. These communities are very different to the groups that interact online in a gaming arena, which although technically a group, are in essence an alliance for a specific purpose, in a set timeframe. The more tradition view of the community can extend beyond geography and proximity and form new social ties which are mutually beneficial. Online special interest groups are an example of this shared identity, giving the contributors a sense of belonging.”

Facebook: Time well spent?

It’s one thing to wonder about the influence that using Facebook has on our psyche , it’s quite another when you’re looking at the cold hard facts about just just how much this service is used. Here are some suprising statistics for you.
* 59 % of American adults are on Facebook
* The average age has shifted from 33 in 2008 to 38 in 2010
* 7.5 million FB users are “underage” (under 13) and 5 million are under 10
* 70% of FB users live ‘outside’ the U.S.
*50% of active users log on DAILY for 1 hour!
*48% of 18-34-year-olds check FB when they wake up; 28% before they get out of bed.

Whilst it seems surprising to see this in black and white, send a moment and reflect on your own Facebook habits. True, if you’re reading this you’re likely to be a gadget savvy web user who has a higher interest in new technology than the average Joe, and then think about your own activity vs. that of your friends. The statistic about checking Facebook in bed is particularly pertinent, as I’m occasionally guilty of flicking through my iPhone before getting out the covers (mostly on weekends).

Now you’re aware just how much time is devoted to using this service (and perhaps feeling a bit guilty about all the books you haven’t read) you’ll have a better understanding why it’s really important that we learn to translate the motivations of users and how we are representing ourselves online- it may be ‘only Facebook’ but figures like these show it really matters, and it’s something we’re part of.

Facebook and Children

Ostensibly you need to be 13 years old to use Facebook, but studies have shown this is far from the reality. It’s very easy to create a false age to use Facebook and very little the creators can do to rectify this. With children using Facebook from very young ages, how suitable is this form of communication and do parents need to be concerned? Microsoft Research Senior Researcher Danah Boyd discovered that out of those he surveyed, 55 percent of parents of 12-year-olds know their children have Facebook accounts, with 82 percent of those knowing when their kids signed up, and 76 percent assisting them in the process.’

That’s pretty high percentages, which suggest that many aren’t think that using Facebook is nothing to be worried about and are happy to aid their kids in logging on. Whilst the community aspect of Facebook can be very enriching- sharing classes, photos and events, I feel that 12 is rather young to get embroiled in the massive popularity contest that Facebook is becoming and am unsure if aiding children to do this is wise. I understand that parents want to help their children belong, and to much invasion is not ideal, but with the amount of Facebook users multiplying, I’m unsure this is the safest avenue for them.

Larry D. Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, discuses the psychological risks for teens who spend too long on social networking services. “While nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives,” he said.
‘Excessive use of sites like Facebook can also lead to poorer academic performance. Teenagers who checked social networks at least once during a 15 minute study period, achieved lower grades’.

It can be tempting for concerned parents to give themselves access to their children’s accounts and virtually spy on their protégée, but this should be discouraged.

Rosen says,  “If you feel that you have to use some sort of computer program to surreptitiously monitor your child’s social networking, you are wasting your time. Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes. You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it.”

Sensible advice, and it all comes down to respect and trust, which have to be mutual or your relationship- digital or real life- will never work.

We’ve discussed how Facebook friendship can be both fulfilling and ostracizing, and how viewing others activities can lead to issues of inadequacy and self editing one’s life. We’ve also looked at how much attention you need to devote to Facebook in order to keep up a presence/pretence of a funfilled active social life and how that the very act of updating becomes a recreational activity in itself.

It’s strange having to navigate new digital friendship territory and we’ve looked at how easy it is to unwittingly give offense in all manners of ways- from detagging to defriending and that Facebook etiquette still needs to be fully comprehended. I have one friend who is a very private person and has set her page up to have no wall- she regularly upsets people who assume they’ve been placed on her ‘limited profile’ view. Then there’s the thorny issue of adding work colleagues and don’t even get me started on recruiters Googling you for potential misdemeanors before they hire you (it’s true- they do all check).

In an age where our digital footprint will haunt us for years to come it’s wise to be savvy about how things are going to be, and as much as some may decry social networking it really has evolved to offer people a new state of friendship, that can be very but as fulfilling as face to face meetings. As with everything in life, it’s good to try and balance this, but as people spread out globally or get restricted by disabilities it’s easy to understand how having an online community can be a fabulously enriching part of one’s life. We need to remember the flip side though, and how our behaviours affect people, as your actions online are something you can be held accountable for, and the dog ate my homework won’t cut it as your actions and updates have a clear timeline.

As long as people start recognizing the impact of their online socializing I see no issue with Facebook growing as it is, we just need to recognize that it’s something we need to grow with and assert our own boundaries on, as no one else will set them for you.

[image sources, 2]


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