The good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook

My post about traumatic defriending prompted some very strong responses on the subject of facebook. Many people who were once staunch fans loathe facebook now – and that’s even without considering the privacy concerns (which most of us seem content to sweep under the carpet). Facebook was a leech on their lives, was the overall message. They were much happier without it. Or they had never signed up, because of various inherent flaws in the whole idea.

It has prompted me to examine my own attitudes to facebook. I was highly resistant to it at first – adamant that I would not be a part of it. I am a bit paranoid about privacy, and I’m still not comfortable with facebook’s attitude to that – but then, I have my entire electronic life on gmail, and I’m not convinced I can trust them either, so blackballing facebook on privacy grounds would be a little arbitrary for me.

I eventually created myself a facebook account in order to look at a friend’s photos. In no time a long-lost friend had found me there, and the rest is history. I don’t play games or enable any facebook apps, mostly for privacy reasons – using any facebook applications gives the application writer access to all of your facebook data. You can’t set any restrictions. And even if I trusted facebook itself (hah!), how do I even know who wrote these apps, and what they are going to do with the data?

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

It is certainly true that facebook is a time leech. A friend of mine used to have a fascinating screen saver (back when screen savers, and indeed computers, were relatively rare and primitive) that he called “soul sucker”, because anyone in the room when it came on would find themselves staring at it blankly. Facebook is definitely a candidate for soul sucker status, even if you don’t play games. I have to exercise considerable self control to keep myself from being sucked into the psychological equivalent of a black hole, updating my status, looking at the status of others, looking at photos, and trawling people’s friend lists for someone I might know.

But, like most technology, the good, the bad and the ugly are all in the way you use it. For instance, when I first signed up I had a tendency to leave birthday messages on it for people I would once have called. Now I generally choose to make the call instead. Facebook is no substitute for face to face or at least voice to voice contact. The ugly, I think, is when you use facebook as a substitute for real life interaction.

Out there things can happen, and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.

The good is in the renewed contact with people I had otherwise lost touch with. Some of that contact drops off again, as it turns out there was a reason we had drifted apart, but sometimes it actually brings us closer together. I can post a query to facebook (like “where do I find a purple fairy broach for my 3 year old???”) and get a host of useful answers within minutes. I learn things about the lives of work colleagues that I didn’t already know, and when I am in a slump for some reason, I can often find entertainment and sympathy through facebook, when I might otherwise be too deeply slumped to lift the phone.

And when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

With facebook, unslumping yourself can sometimes be a little easier – like yesterday, when I posted just two words (“Bloody reflux”), and quickly got a host of sympathetic responses that made me feel much happier, despite having had no sleep due to my 3 year old’s reflux the night before.

Sometimes I find common ground through status updates, where friends share hobbies or concerns that I didn’t expect. Facebook is also a most effective way to advertise my blog – I suspect that over 50% of my readers find out about new posts via facebook (Hi there! :-).

Sadly, the bad of facebook is legion. Privacy concerns, people posting way too much information, surreptitious defriending, cyber-stalking – these are all serious issues. Or, at least, they can be. By and large the positives for me still outweigh the negatives. I have fairly paranoid security settings (only friends can see my stuff, not friends of friends, who could be anyone!), and there are new ways of creating groups so that not all of your “friends” can see everything you post. I don’t usually bother with those, though – these days I understand that facebook is not private at all, so I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want publicly visible.

Overall I think that the problem is that we have not developed sensible, compassionate etiquette around the relatively new technology of social networking. When you get right down to it, whatever the technology, we always need to remember to treat each other with respect, compassion and kindness. New technologies offer us new ways to be inconsiderate and cruel – but we can see, and hence avoid them if we try.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

Facebook can be a positive force, but only if we consciously and deliberately use it positively. In that respect we are somewhat at the mercy of our facebook friends. One person using it unpleasantly can sour the experience for everyone. But that’s life itself, isn’t it?

*All quotes in this piece come from Dr Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

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2 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook

  1. Joe

    Indeed. *Everything* via the internet is “public”. Facebook, your own domain, your email, your shopping habits. It takes some pretty careful browser settings if you want to reduce the ability for a third party to collect a full profile of your habits and attach it to your IP and email addresses, and your email travels readably through countless hands should anyone care to be interested. (I believe you can’t eliminate these things, but you can reduce the breadth.)

    Personally I *try* to never *write* anything that would have significant (negative, personal) consequences if it appeared on the front page of a newspaper. Let alone published photos.

    On the other hand, I try to live and speak in ways that meet this criteria as well, though there are certainly things I may find myself *defending* if they were thus published. But “privacy” (of information) is for wusses. (As distinct from the kind of privacy meaning the world leaves me in peace, and alas in order to get the second kind of privacy these days you need to manage the first kind :-P )

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