This spring, I created an account on Facebook. I’m a web 2.0 cynic (and a cynic in general), so this surprised some of my friends and colleagues. But I was encouraged by so many of them, I wanted to give it a try. For example, Ian McCarthy just wanted an easier way to share pictures with me without having to pester me to go look. BJ Fogg told me that he was thinking about how to use Facebook for teaching (here’s the Facebook group on the topic), and encouraged me to get on because my students use Facebook and like it.
So, I’ve been trying to use Facebook earnestly for the past few months to get a sense of how it works and what I might use it for. I know that there is a lot of mounting interest in Facebook and social networking software in general among university professors and administrators. I spoke at the Georgia Tech President’s Retreat last week, and Facebook was a part of more than one of the presentations. Some just want to understand how college-age students use technology. Some want to harness it for their own purposes. I didn’t have any preconceived goals for exploiting the service. I tried to keep an open mind and to use the service as naturally as possible — in my case, primarily as a university professor. Here are some of my reactions so far.
A “friend” on a social media system like Facebook is different from a friend in the ordinary sense. This is not a new problem nor one unique to Facebook. I imagine it’s Friendster‘s fault that the word “friend” is the one we use on services of this kind. Ill-fated Google property Orkut even demanded “Is X your friend YES OR NO?” when forging links between people. Things are never so simple.
Different people have different ways of marking their Facebook relationships. For example, I’ve noticed that my colleague Liz Losh uses the phrase “Facebook friend” to signal this confusion, but it doesn’t really give me any better sense of her relationships with them than would “colleague” or “acquaintance.” Facebook friendship is certainly more ambiguous than “ordinary” friendship. Liz’s way of marking people in this way acknowledges that ambiguity but does not resolve it.
I’ve been a heavy LinkedIn user since its launch. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn has a very specific use in mind: business networking (this is also one of the original social applications of complex network theory, care of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter‘s article The Strength of Weak Ties). LinkedIn doesn’t call people “friends”; it calls them “contacts.” This is also what my address book calls people. It’s a much more impersonal concept, and it’s one that corresponds well to the way I use LinkedIn: to reach particular people I don’t know, or people in particular roles at particular organizations.
I wrote in my last book, Unit Operations, that many social networks work by a kind of Heideggerean standing reserve: one collects relationships and keeps them dormant until needed. This is more easily seen when the relationships are all of the same type. On LinkedIn this is quite straightforward. But I have no idea what common feature, if any, characterizes my “friends” on Facebook. Some are my university colleagues. Some are business colleagues. Some are former classmates. Some are students. Some are acquantainces. Some are people I don’t really know at all, but who know me or my work.
“Friend details” are supposed to fix this problem, at least in part. This is the feature that allows Facebook “friends” to clarify their relationships with each other — we worked together, we met through a friend, we are members of the same extended family, and so forth. Adding this information is optional, and in my experience it is rarely used. Even when it is, the options are limited. Here’s what the interface looks like:
Facebook was originally conceived as a tool for university students, a digital adaptation of the paper-and-ink facebooks meant to help students get to know each other at the start of a term. As a professor, I found it interesting that Facebook’s detail options give me almost innumerable ways to describe the nature and satisfaction of sexual relationships, but no way to declare that a “friend” had been a student, research assistant, TA, or advisee.
Facebook seems to demand that “friend” relationships be mutual, identical, and bidirectional. This is why my “friends” can’t be my TA’s for example — the only way Facebook understands friendships is through commutativity. I find this odd, since it means that people would have to agree about, say, the quality of their sexual partners. But it also means that people can’t have one-directional or asymetrical relationships with one another.
LinkedIn’s service couples well with the notion of the “contact.” But Facebook and other more general social network software alter the concept of the “friend” without drawing explicit attention to the ways in which they do this. Instead, users must negotiate this new idea of friendship on thieir own, a challenge that proves difficult even to experts.
The idea of multiple friendships is not new of course. Aristotle articulated three types of friendship — friendship grounded in virtue, friendship grounded in utility, and friendship grounded in pleasure. Politics and business fall into the second type — this is the domain of LinkedIn. Enjoyment, sex, distraction, and other pleasures fall into the third type — this is the domain of Friendster and to some extent of Facebook. Aristotle calls these two types “incomplete” friendships. The first type of friendship, “complete” friendship, does not exclude utility and pleasure, but it adds virtue — wishing well on another for its own sake, rather than for return.
Aristotle’s model is not one we must take as gospel. In fact, it might even have created considerable trouble for Western culture. For example, philosopher Jacques Derrida showed how political friendship as “brotherhood” explicitly excludes women, a fact woven deeply into the fraternity of political life in the enlightenment. Other critiques and revisions are possible. But Facebook doesn’t make any claims about how friendship might change online thanks to the computational frame the service draws around those relationships.
One way the Facebook platform alters one’s perspective on their relationships is through the service’s disinterest in time. There is a collapse of time on Facebook. Things become relevant only when they get a timestamp in Facebook’s database. Here’s an example:
Ali Mazalek is one of my Georgia Tech colleagues. I’ve worked with her for two years now, and I’ve known her through her work for at least another year before that. Let’s bracket the question of whether or not “friends” is a subtle enough word for our relationship. Are we really “now friends?” Whatever we are, we’ve been that way for a while. What is true is that we’re “now friends” on Facebook, an irrelevent accident of timing. Is it useful to know that our profiles are “now” connected? Is that really a meaningful moment for either of us? It might be slightly better if Facebook allowed more of the friend detail information to percolate up to this level in the news feed, but it wouldn’t be much better.
I’ve also had a hard time backfilling my life into Facebook. I can imagine how Facebook would be very easy to use if you started in high school or as an undergraduate. But to go add, say, my alumni affiliations, I need an official email address at the school. Going through the trouble of searching for my alumni numbers and getting a forwarding email for alumni.usc.edu or whatever is too time consuming a project for me to bother with. But it means that the connections afforded by alumni searches and communities are inaccessible to me. The same goes for companies I have worked for. I see a lot of my students add the corporations they work for as summer interns, but that only works becuase their professional lives are evolving contemporaneously with their Facebook profiles.
I’ve also seen this time collapse create considerable confusion among my “friends.” For example, at one point, one of my professional colleagues, Joi Ito, added his relationship status into his profile — he’s been engaged for some time now, and he updated his profile to reflect this. The event — not the engagement, but the profile update — got reported on the Facebook newsfeed as Joi is now engaged. As Joi himself noted in passing (on Twitter no less), people started congratulating him. Some even sent him Facebook gifts.
danah boyd has previously discussed the issues of privacy surrounding the Facebook newsfeed. But examples like Joi’s phantom engagement suggest that continuity exacerbates the issue. Even if I don’t mind sharing some or all of my activity with my “friends,” I might give pause knowing how that information disseminates under the “eternal now” of Facebook’s time horizon.
Mark Nelson, one of my former students, told me that he liked Facebook because it let him keep in loose contact with a wide variety and number of people, at limited attention cost. It makes sense: the newsfeed, despite its lamentably simplistic controls, allows me to quickly learn what’s going on in everyone’s lives. In some cases, I have legitimately felt this sensation. For example, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with my philosopher colleague Graham Harman, who teaches at the American University in Cairo and whom I’ve never actually met in person. Or just this weekend, when I saw the first photos of game studies colleagues Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire‘s new baby.
But most of the time when I look at my feed, I see very little insight into the lives of my “friends.” Instead, I see their lives siphoned through the commercial sieve of Facebook. Take a look at one recent view:
It’s a catalog of all the Facebook applications and other gimmickry some of my “freinds” had recently added. It is, essentially, a list of all the things they were doing there, on Facebook, rather than anywhere else. It’s a play-by-play of users’ mundane mouse acts.
Anyone who has played my games knows that I’m actually obsessed with the mundane. Getting copies, waiting in line at airport security, eating breakfast, running errands — all of these are topics of videogames I have designed. And a snapshot into my friends everyday lives sounds interesting to me … understanding something of their ordinary dealings, not just their accomplishments. But Facebook doesn’t really offer a record of that kind of everyday experience. Instead, it creates a record of their dealings with this particular commercial service provider. It reminds me a bit of Kenneth Goldsmith‘s book Soliloquy, a transcript of every utterance the author made for a week. This is conceptual art, not social interaction.
Admittedly, when I captured the feed view above, Facebook applications were still relatively new, and since one really has to add the things to see what they do, it’s not uncommon to add and remove several in rapid succession. This dynamic may tame over time.
Speaking of Facebook appliations, “application” is a fairly generous term for the gizmos that one can make and add to the service. They are more like billboards, surfaces upon which text or images or video or sound can be installed. This may improve over time, but for now Facebook applications feel like gimmicks, not utilities nor expressive artifacts.
When Facebook announced their F8 platform, it appeared that the service would become an open one for application development. The problem is, few of the applications developed seem like much more than fashion, so many thousands of developers taking their first swing at putting anything at all up on the service. Even the Facebook-authored applications seem crippled and unimaginative. Take the Courses app, for example, which purports to provide services for tracking university courses but differs little from an ordinary Facebook group.
I’m very interested in platforms, and I am curious to see how Facebook evolves into a software platform with its own unique affordances and constraints. But for now, I see almost exclusively services that help keep people bound to Facebook, rather than those that look outside, to other aspects of peoples lives, and integrate them meaningfully with the Facebook community. This dynamic mirrors some of my complaints about web 2.0 in general, namely an obsession with the ability to create, rather than a transition from ability to meaning.
Some have talked about Facebook as a place for kids and youth, a home base where they can hang out in a world that constrains or prevents contact in the physical world. For this reason, many academics are asking themselves how they should be using the service — should they stay at arms length and not try to meddle in students’ Facebook lives? Or should they attempt to integrate themselves into their students online lives?
I have experimented with adding some of my former students as friends, but questions abound: should I seek out and add all my students? Will I appear collegial? Solicitous? Perverted? If I add just the “best” ones or those with whom I had more deliberate academic content, will this be viewed as favoritism? By whom? On the flipside, does a student have any expectations of me if we are Facebook friends? Should they?
The question of how educators should use Facebook cuts both ways. Using Facebook might enable better pedagogy or advisement. But exposing my profile and activity to my students might also force me to change the way I use the service. Do I want my students to see the details of my professional relationships with faculty from other universities? Or colleagues in the corporate world?
After some consideration, I think the answer is yes. I think this because university faculty have a responsibility to mentor students, not just in the context of disciplinary knowledge, but also in the context of interacting with the world more broadly. Apprenticeship is not just a process of learning a trade; it is also a process of learning how to contextualize work in relation to the rest of one’s life.
I had many good intellectual mentors as an undergrad and graduate student, but only a few good professional mentors in universities. Academics don’t have the best reputation for leading grounded lives in the material world, after all. I was fortunate to have worked in a variety of professions before settling on academics, so I picked up a lot of that experience in business. As academic faculty, we have direct contact with the next generation at a time when it could benefit from models of intersecting personal and professional lives, and it seems to me that we have a responsibility to make use of this influence.
I want to be clear here: I am not suggesting that we professors know how to use Facebook better than our students, and if only we model that virtous use then our underlings will become productive post-Facebook professionals. Quite the opposite: I want to suggest that we don’t know how to use Facebook at all, we do not understand how it alters our current and future relationships with one another. But the act of trying to answer this question is itself a model we can set for our students — a model for how a particular profession, higher education, deals with disruption, novelty, and uncertainty.
For my part, I lament the fact that Facebook doesn’t ambiguate “friendship” more from within the service itself. To do so might be outside the purview of the Silicon Valley’s techno-libertarianism. But with almost 30 million users, many of them young people, we cannot deny that Facebook has a political impact — or at least a potential impact. It has the untapped power to serve as a test bed for thinking and rethinking friendship beyond lust and employment, a real platform for commentary like Derrida’s critique of the phallogocentrism of fraternity. But I wonder — and I fear — that such effort may inevitably be impossible in a public sphere that is fundamentally private: a corporation that has no social interest save the production of value through amassing users whose information can later be sold to Google or Microsoft or News Corp for the going rate per head.
For all the talk of the everyman becoming a “content creator” thanks to the “new web,” we academics seem strangely satisfied just to become consumers of such services — Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, Second Life. There is, perhaps, some benefit to that adoption. But there is equal — maybe greater — benefit in questioning them, being unsatisfied, disappointed, worried, even affronted. My fall term starts tomorrow, and I plan to use Facebook in my teaching for the first time. For me, that use must mean more than just adopting Facebook as a way to mark my professorial hipness, or as a pedagogical tool with great untapped potential. Rather, it means posing difficult questions that might complicate, more than celebrate, my students’ relationship with Facebook.