Saturday, March 03, 2012

They're trying to build a computerised community...

“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life”

“Facebook is a gross waste of time and effort that could be better used in the real world”

From these two quotes it is not difficult to surmise that there are massively varying opinions on Facebook and its place in the world. But what are the positives and negatives of it? (and social media as a whole?) Is it a useful tool, harmless fun or a dangerous invasion? I’m not even going to attempt to answer that question, but here are my musings on some of things that need to be considered on the way to trying to answer it.

The main issue most people immediately point to is privacy. As soon as you join facebook it becomes difficult to keep things away from it, whether it is because you say things on it or because other people are continually writing you messages and uploading photographs etc. Although much of this is harmless, it is almost certain that people will find out things you either don’t want them to know or that they just have no business to know.
Is it good, bad or both?

Following up on this point there is the idea that records will be kept long into the future. After all, it’s one thing to make comments etc now, but are they things you will want to be available for people to find 5, 10, 20 years into the future? Who knows what things, which mean nothing now, could come back to haunt you, especially if they are taken out of a context you may by that point not even remember.

There is also the aspect of privacy in terms of personal information. Many users register their email, address, phone number, date of birth etc on their accounts, which are then available to anyone who is able to view you profile. Even with the added security features that have been introduced, there are still relatively few hacking skills required to gain access to them. Is having an account, at least one with this sort of information on it, a risk in terms of fraud or even identity theft?

On the positive side facebook does provide an easy way to keep in touch with people. This can be especially useful where people have moved away and tend to slip from your mind. I have been reminded many a time that I haven’t heard from someone for a long time when they crop up in facebook and it provides a spur for me to get in touch.

The immediate flip side to this is that it’s very easy to end up maintaining the same level of friendship with people we actually barely know. A quick trawl through my friend list reveals that many of them are people I know and see on a regular basis. But there are also people I was a school with 10 years ago and haven’t seen since, people I used to work with and even people I met once at a conference and, no offence intended, I wasn’t that close with them when I did see them regularly. It may not be a massive downside, but it is difficult to maintain different levels of friendship as everyone is treated the same. Would it be a big deal if my ‘friendship’ with someone I’m not that likely to see again were allowed to be lost?

I think probably the biggest advantage of facebook is that it provides an easy way of sharing things with friends. You can announce news instantly to lots of people, you can put up photographs of things you’ve been doing and you can organise and invite people to events all from a computer screen or a phone. Gone are the days where people had to get prints of their holiday photos and then take them into the office and go through them with anyone that wanted to see. Now they're online with comments and descriptions before you’re back from the holiday!

Are scenes like this a thing of the past?

The upsurge in the use of facebook to share this sort of stuff has however led to facebook in fact becoming the main way some people relate to each other. The danger of it being so easy and quick is that we never actually spend time with some people. Sure with our closest friends we would do, but there are lots of people that I don’t see that often, or when I do see them I don’t make a concerted effort to go and chat with them, because I commented on their photo a few days ago and they ‘liked’ my status just before that. It creates an illusion that we are maintaining friendships that in reality are becoming neglected and suddenly aren't there when you need them. When was the last time you saw a wall post from someone bearing their soul to another and asking for help?

A final benefit, though it pains me somewhat to include it is the simple fact that, with so many people using it so much, you feel like you’re missing out if you’re not involved. Didn’t get invited to a massive birthday gathering? Haven’t seen someone’s wedding photos? Didn’t know they were having a baby? The chances are that you would have done if you were their facebook friend rather than just a friend.

So there it is. I’m no nearer a conclusion than when I started but please do feel free to weigh in on the debate or make points of your own!
PS: The irony of promoting a blog that denigrates facebook  via twitter on facebook is not lost on me!