Facebook isn’t meant to replace real life or actual social interaction, and I don’t think many people think of it as an alternative. Everyone realizes it’s an addition, a plus, something to support everyday interactions. And I’m not even going to get into the “is it even Halal, is it a bad influence?” situation right now.
Social interaction is so delicate in real life. We have a hundred different selves in real life, different levels of professionalism and formality, different attitudes on things depending on the kind of crowd we are with. Cultures have intricate rules of etiquette and social norms that control situations and interactions with people before we even begin talking. They say body language is more than 50 percent of what we communicate to someone else.
I know when my mother says it’s ok if I don’t clean the kitchen, it really means I better clean the kitchen or I’m going to feel guilty the rest of the day. I can see in my friend’s eyes that she is not ok when she smiles and tells me she is doing fine. I talk quietly around those I don’t know well, but I’m loud and talkative around those I am close with. I know what jokes are appropriate for which situations, though I am usually socially awkward.
These intricacies are hard to translate online. Real life is a varied landscape, with mountains and valleys, crescendos and cliffs, as well as deep caves, wide trees, and open plains of meaning. It is so rich and textured and different for everyone who experiences it.
I feel like Facebook flattens out reality. As I said, obviously it’s not meant to replace real social interaction – but it kind of distorts truth and one’s way of thinking of the world. People you never talk to and those you are super close to show up equally on your NewsFeed. Everyone’s words sound neutral and monotone, without that landscape of emotion and range that it would have if said in person. Every mountain and valley of differing social experiences, social circles, perceptions, and biases one has for others is flattened out on the Internet. We find ourselves dealing more with certain people online than we ever do in real life. We find ourselves joking around with someone online who at school we sort of barely make awkward small talk with. Each “emotional” or “deep” status message seems empty and repetitive when blasted online for the world despite how much meaning it would have if whispered to you by your friend during a late night talk. We skim through people’s successes and “FML”s, their engaged/married statuses, and their copy-pasted quotes like we skim through YouTube videos and Google News. I think that makes it easier to judge rather than to empathize.
The connotations of an action, the body language of the speaker, the implied meaning on top of the obvious meaning – all need to be deciphered by our personal perceptions during those few seconds rather than the social cues of the landscape of life. Maybe it’s just me, but the pleas for pity, the super deep quote from someone I have a suspicion doesn’t really understand what it means, and the attempts at being witty come across as hollow and insincere. And we can’t forget that therapeutic relief quality of anonymously-directed-venting via social media. Do “I hate when people can’t just keep their mouths shut”, “Feeling betrayed by certain people, just can’t trust anyone”, “If you want to apologize, calling 20 times isn’t the way to do it” sound like familiar statuses? Sometimes it’s easier to pretend to talk generally and release our feelings via Twitter or FB statuses rather than talk to the target of our anger or unhappy thoughts directly. Hey, I’m not pointing fingers or judging – I do all these things too. My point isn’t that people are fake; it’s that whatever we’re saying comes across indelicately. Sort of like walking up to someone we don’t know well and letting them casually know that our family member just died. That’s enough to make everyone around wince just a little bit.
I find myself feeling uncomfortable when I see someone’s status with TMI, as in I really didn’t need to know all that. Like that awkward inside joke that only one other person understands, or detailed information on how last night was, or jokes that make people uncomfortable. I really don’t want to know about how much you hate your mother through your status, little preteen girl that I know through the Islamic center. Unless we are sitting there having a heart-to-heart about difficult family situations, you should probable keep that to a private message. You do realize you have people besides your best friends on Facebook, right? In fact, I think you have a Maulana added as a friend. (You realize if he has a Facebook, then he probably knows enough about it to check it as well. Your immature post just blasted across Maulana’s NewsFeed. Awkkk-ward.)
Even Wall posts on a friend’s page are treated like actual private conversations. So that “certain someone” who we don’t talk to but are talking about on our Wall-to-Wall can actually see our conversation. Weird, huh? That delicacy of the social interaction feels bulldozed when I see a post about their personal life on Facebook or Twitter when maybe I did a group project with them in a class once, or used to work with them two jobs ago and then added them on Facebook. They wouldn’t blurt it out in front of me if we were standing in a circle of people at school, but on Facebook people seem to overlook their other 400 friends.
Speaking of that, as an aside, really do you need that many friends? I never understood the need to add every people one ever meets on Facebook and then keep them as friends for a long time. I work with someone, add them, and then unless I’m good friends with them, if I change a job, I delete them. Because I really don’t think they are going to care about my Ramadan statuses and personal rants, or my plea to show up at a protest downtown the next day. Personally, I try to keep to 200 friends who I regularly interact with, and even then I definitely feel like I’m overreaching.
I sometimes wonder if our interactions with people in real life have changed since social media became big. I know email and texting were already starting to shift our social and professional lives significantly, but social media connected us to a community larger than ourselves. A different social experience was born. Perhaps some would even argue a superior system. After all, where else can you interact with your best friend, your lab partner, your handy computer nerd acquaintance, and your cousin from Lebanon all in one arena? That’s got to be worth something right? Or is it in fact making these relationships less meaningful, more perfunctory, and evenly distributed in ways that it would never be in a face-to-face situation?