The Facebook Era

These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect. Sherry Turkle

It was the week of the big Facebook IPO fizzle. It was also the week I read a review of Facebook research recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, (Vol 7, 203-220). Even erudite scientific journals are not immune from the Facebook Effect.

The authors summarize the results of 412 studies from a variety of peer-reviewed journals. They report that Facebook now has over 845,000,000 (that’s 845 million) users from countries throughout the world. In fact, 80% of the users (Facebookers?) live outside this country. While I am aware of the popularity of Facebook (who could not be?) I didn’t realize it passed Google in 2010 to become the most visited website in the US.

The authors ask us to assume the activity of all these people on Facebook has some degree of generality to social behavior in other situations. They also ask us to assume the information shown in a user’s Profile is accurate, in other words, truthful. I am not sure about either of these assumptions.

The average user is reported to have 130 friends but the distribution on this measure is highly skewed, such that 20% had fewer than 25 friends, 50% had over 100 friends (Do you have over actual 100 friends?) and a small number had over 5,000—the maximum number allowed. I was intrigued to learn that 92% of the users were connected by only four degrees of separation from other users.

The question posed by the authors that interested me most was “Why do people use Facebook?” It sure beats me.

The most common reason cited in the research is the “users desire to keep in touch with friends.” This isn’t much of a bombshell, is it? Surely we knew how to do this before Facebook arrived on the scene. The researchers distinguish between strong ties—actively communicating with a small group of friends—and weak ties—more passive following the news of other “friends.”

A small number of studies suggest that loneliness may motivate some users, although the research here is equivocal. Others mention they become Facebookers to relive boredom, a motivation that seems more plausible to me, in the sense that it becomes a diversion, a time out, or a break from working on an effortful task.

The authors wonder if Facebook profiles are accurate. I don’t know how they expect to ever arrive at clear answer to this question without actually interviewing the profiler in person. In my case, to be sure only one, my profile was written in jest and while I am a pretty bookish guy, I do not look like the photo on my page. Anyone who knows me would realize in flash that I was only being playful about other matters, as well.

A great many commentators have worried about how Facebook affects a user’s personal relationships and especially for young persons, to what extent it interferes with their education. In the absence of research, the authors address none of these questions. Here we must fall back on the many published speculations and the accounts of individuals we know.

Does Facebook represent a positive contribution to society? The answer to this simple question is also beyond the scope of the report, probably beyond the scope of any systematic research. To answer this question, we might wish to imagine how our life would be different if there never was a Facebook in the first place. Would other forms online exchange fill up the void? Or what did we do before Facebook? Can we get along now without it?

In discussing the impact of Facebook on modern life, the authors suggest it played a major role in facilitating the Egyptian uprising that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. They claim that during the two weeks before Mubarak’s resignation, with five million users in Egypt, “over 32,000 new groups and 14,000 new pages were created on Facebook in Egypt.”

We have heard similar reports about other protest movements in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Movement in this country. Again we must ask ourselves if these movements would have occurred in the absence of Facebook. To answer this question all we need to do is look to history for examples of protests and revolutions long before the Facebook Era.

At the end of his article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” in this month’s Atlantic, Stephene Marche concludes: “What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.”