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.

Friends and “Friends”

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.

Collapsed Time

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 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.

The Wrong Kind of Mundane

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.

The Apprenticeship of Friendship

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.

published August 19, 2007


  1. Mark Nelson

    It’s not really here or there, but as a nitpick I’d hardly say I like Facebook myself. 🙂 I just see a few useful things about it, and somewhat reluctantly log in every few days because everyone else I know uses it. The newsfeed is useful to me mainly for the status updates, which keep me vaguely updated on people I don’t talk to all the time. For example, I would probably not have otherwise known that you were disassembling ROMs on August 4, and those sorts of things sometimes provide useful excuses to talk to say hi to people I only occasionally talk to.

    I do see a lot of other people use it as very low-bandwidth, asynchronous communication medium for communication they might not otherwise have engaged in (though I don’t do this myself). The sorts of 2-sentence messages that people put in public “wall” posts and private notes seem too insubstantial for email, and take less time to send than IMing them, which would inevitably start a conversation instead of just end there.

    And yeah, lots of people just use it as a sort of web-based rolodex. It’s actually kind of useful for that, because a large percentage of people I know have facebook accounts, and they keep their contact information (or at least email and webpage) up to date, so I can go look for it there if I need it.

    A significant problem though, IMO, is that Facebook is a company whose goals aren’t those of its users. This is increasingly shining through in things like advertisements in the feeds, and generally guiding the service towards maximizing ad revenue rather than helping its users. And, of course, the data is all also locked up: You can’t export your information, since that would hurt Facebook’s competitive moat.

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Ian-

    Fascinating thoughts, and I guess you’re the one I’d most expect to come up with a theory of Facebook.

    By the way, I’m really glad to find the “Strength of Weak Ties” link in your comments. Perhaps I was tardy, but *Unit Operations* was the first place I read of that notion, and I’ve thought of it often ever since. It’s changed my life in a couple of ways… First, it heightens my sense of opportunity when encountering weak links, and second, it discourages me from trying to turn every weak link into a stronger one (as is my temperamental inclination).

    Maybe the problem with Facebook is its tendency to convert weak links into strong ones. Though I genuinely like all the people on my friends list, some of them are the most fleeting of acquaintances, and these people can now follow my day-by-day movements during travel and view photos of my pets and nephews. Not that this alarms me, it simply never would have occurred to me to share such things with more than a small number of people on the list.

    In fact, a week or two ago, I suddenly felt too naked with the increasing number of people on the friends list, and instinctively stripped all my personal information from the site. So, as my page has “overheated”, I’ve gradually shifted it toward more of weak-link-oriented activity, and have tried to convert my friends from Facebook messages back to e-mail.

    I could ramble on about Facebook (which I’ve greatly enjoyed), but would summarize my two basic complaints as follows…

    1. I like posts on my wall, which are festive and also a catalyst for others to add posts. But I don’t like Facebook messages as a replacement for e-mail, since it’s much harder to keep them.

    2. There is another problem with people being able to see your latest news without your knowing that they are seeing it, which is that they don’t have to write to you to find out. There has been a small but undeniable decrease in the amount of e-mail I’ve received since March from people on my friends list.

    One other issue is the problem of diverse crowds. I was initially invited onto Facebook by a number of my students, but now several of my other life “subcultures” are represented as well, including relatives, fellow professors in Egypt, and academic contacts stationed elsewhere. This has made me more conscious than ever of how I am a different person to each of those crowds. Sometimes this encourages caution, but at other times it tempts one toward a strange sort of exhibitionism. Around 90% of my Facebook friends are much younger than I am (largely students and recent ex-students), so it also brings out a more rascally youthful attitude in me.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post. When’s the book coming out?



  3. Jason Mittell

    Great post – and your professorial hipness quotient is already through the roof via Colbert…

    I pretty much agree with everything you wrote – the inability to use any category aside from “friend” is troubling. I do think the “how do you know” function can work if people are creative with it (I just tried to be a bit more detailed in our friendship, for instance). But the inability to create different social networks is problematic, treating all friends the same. A number of my students have friended me – am I expected to treat them differently now that we are friends? We need an Erving Goffman plugin to help delineate differing social spheres within the network…

    As for apps, the one that I’ve found the best for doing more than just adorning your page is Scrabulous, combining online scrabble play within your social network. I hope game designers try to run with this ball with more original & creative games, as it would quite an interesting space to play games within.

  4. Dakota Brown

    One thing a few collaborators and I have been discussing is the potential of Facebooks apps as a form of software black comedy.

    The first “black app” we are developing (and should launch in a week or two) is the Facebook STI Notifier. The concept grew out of a conversation where we were wondering whether or not social networking sites could be considered social diseases.

    The result is going to be an app where you enter the STI you were diagnosed with and when, the app then sends a Facebook message to everyone you either dated or hooked up with explaining what happened.

    The project is more about commentary than function, but hopefully illustrates the approach we’re taking.

  5. Ian Bogost


    On the rolodex stuff, I have noticed that people seem to have more accurate/complete info on FB than in other places. I’ve often found colleagues IM handles this way for example.


    Really interesting observation about FB’s possible attempt to convert weak to strong ties. LinkedIn doesn’t attempt to do this at all, it is happy to keep weak ties weak, which helps them serve their function. I suspect that my students are better at managing their weak ties on FB than I am, but there is no denying the fact that FB represents all of my “friends” activity as equal, in the newsfeed and elsewhere.

    If by the book you mean Persuasive Games, it’s out! Maybe I can get you a copy when you land in Europe?


    One thing I thought of after I wrote this was the following (I updated the post to include this observation): FB seems to demand that friend relationships be mutual and bidirectional. This is why my “friends” can’t be my TA’s for example — the only way FB understands friendships is through commutativity. I find this sort of odd, since it also 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 relationships, which is actually a pretty common occurrence.


    Of course I love the idea of using the FB platform for commentary. I can’t wait to see what you come up with. I have to tell you though… my friends at the CDC would be really interested in a “legitimate” version of this feature.

  6. Rick


    As a crufty old dude that develops social platforms,and is currently designing identity management systems, perhaps the fault of current networks is that one is forced to play with one identity. There is the real identity and the anonymous on-line identity. Maybe like a cat one should have nine lives or ten or twelve in tune with the zodiac? Rules for outing or destroying an identity would of course be required. In the real world we show only a small part of ourselves. Why do we reveal so much more in a network? Why are fakers forbidden on Friendster? The net has been filled with fakers from the beginning.

  7. Brennan Young

    Superb post. I also find the ‘symmetry’ and the restrictions on alum offered by facebook to be constricting. How do I describe my relationships with my ex-students, ex fellow-students and my own mentors and teachers? These are important details that no social networking site to date takes seriously.

  8. Jonathan E. Tarr

    As an undergrad at one of the first handful of schools where Facebook “debuted” during its infancy, I think your analysis is spot-on. Most student users of Facebook use it for visibility above all else, so that anyone in their respective networks can see their major, place of summer employment, number of friends, etc. Though it didn’t survive, the initial “Visualize Your Network” tool on FB acknowledged this was one of the site’s strengths. I’m still active on Facebook after graduation mainly to see what others I know are up to now (and to be seen too, I suppose).

    I do agree that Facebook really limits how you can classify your friends/contacts/people you know, but the “friend details” feature did present a minor improvement IMO. That it has an “I don’t even know this person” check box is pretty helpful to me, and I have also used the “traveled together” and “took a course together” options and then added in the necessary detail.

  9. Ian Bogost

    Resisting the Membership Economy

    Photography, Flickr, and Me

  10. Laptop Tech

    Well put Ian, you are very knowledgeable and like always I enjoy your posts. I have just signed up for Facebook myself not too long ago and I agree with much of what you are saying.

    Like everything Facebook does have its shortcomings but I do like many of its features. Linked in is great in my opinion and I have been using for a while now.

  11. Social Network

    I’d hate to interrupt your intellectual blabber but online friends never equal real friends, sorry. Online is a place to get work done, or waste your life away.

    If you have real friends you would be out having a drink.

  12. Charles Wankel

    Nice posting! As far Facebook being a sort of frat party for some students that a professor is unwelcome at, let me say that students can create a new FaceBook profile to use in a class while keeping their other less decorous than a class shared one ought to be. The percentage of students not in Facebook varies among universities. At St. John’s we have many international students who are not on Facebook and who can find entry into many of our universities communities and events through it. Certainly, it is a way for me to keep in touch with students after they graduate in richer way than through LinkedIn (which I also require). I noticed the last comment on the post said “online is a way to waste your life”. I find I very rich and productive relationships with people I only online and my life would be much diminished without them. Sometimes people I meet online walk into my face-to-face life and that’s fine too.

  13. Jake Culver

    I completely agree with the idea that social networking sites try too hard to simplify interpersonal relationships. I believe this is a sign of the makers of facebook following the lead of the television and advertising. The idea that anything that is not familiar and simple will exclude people who aren’t willing to learn or adjust, clearly impacted the ‘friend’ title. More than just example of Facebook friend versus the contact, I think this article touches on the ways technology has changed interpersonal relationships. Their is always a difference from one relationship to the next, whether it’s a light acquaintance or a childhood sweetheart all social sites will lump them into a single category.

    While we might lament about the awkwardness of our parents commenting on a post intended for friends, we also don’t want people to know that despite your connections in real life, you don’t want them to see certain things on your profile. If one were to send someone a slight acquaintance request when that person believes you to be a good friend or at least some level of camaraderie above that of the passing nod, you can burn bridges is in the real life.

    So while we might find that the system of friendship provided for by facebook to be overly simplified, the dangers of over complication are just as real.