Facebook culture: a substitute for actually experiencing life?

“Ye, don’t worry mate. I’ll Facebook you tonight”

This has become my regular parting, a sort of “see ya later, mate” if you will – with the obvious intonation to further contact at the end. If this is any indication of Facebook’s popularity and growing influence on youth everywhere, then one could conclude that Facebook is taking over our lives. Well, sort of.

I often wonder what happens when a sub-culture like Facebook becomes so ubiquitous, so widespread, that the term “to Facebook” becomes a commonly used verb. The premise of social networking is that each profile is customized to reflect a person’s character, personality and interests. A snapshot in time of your life – photos of yesterday’s graduation, yearnings for the future, your relationship status and emotional state. However I witness of growing trend of “Facebookerization” whereby social networking becomes the primary pursuit in socialising – rather than simply a mere documentation of what we do in ‘real life’. Take for example the growing phenomenon of “Facebook addiction“, whereby people spend hours glazing through profiles, pictures and  news feeds – searching aimlessly through groups to call their own, and of course, the dreaded ‘apps’ and mini-games such as Farmville, that desensitize their helpless victims glued to the screen and keep them in a trance for hours. This is where using Facebook crosses the line from  a useful networking tool to a brain deadening waste of time.

Personally I try to limit my Facebook usage to essential contact. Talking with relatives overseas. Organizing a movie with friends. Occasionally announcing an important milestone in my life. But these days, it’s simply not enough. If you don’t have a solid Facebook presence, then you are disconnected from the world and your social milieu. Not appearing in enough pictures means that you don’t get out much. Unless you compulsively leave mindless wall posts on friends walls, you don’t really care about them. Showing affection equals taking an interest on Facebook – and posting prudently to boot. How ironic then, that less than ten years ago, spending time on the computer and internet was the epitome of antisocial behaviour. Today, if you don’t have a web presence, you will be judged – and you probably won’t even know about it.

Mind numbing posts - recording the mundane and the banal

Yesterday, I needed to contact a friend about selling my school books. Instinctively, I logged on to Facebook to send him a message. I couldn’t find him in my “friends list”, so I initiated a general search – and lo and behold, he didn’t appear in the results. I was dumbfounded. Everyone has Facebook. How could he so rudely exempt himself from the unspoken obligation of social networking? And then it hit me – he is the lucky one. He doesn’t have to deal with annoying status updates which mean nothing (driving 2 da Shops@!, OMG killer partay, *insert-random-quote-that-you-found-smart-so-that-other-people-will-think-that-you-are-profound*). He doesn’t have to squirm at pictures of drunken photos that show up in the news feed. And most of all, he doesn’t have to justify his online presence in a cynical culture of conformity that constantly demands you to reveal more and more of yourself – a culture in which nothing in secret, and nothing is sacred: a peer-pressure mentality that requires your identity and Facebook page coalesce into one. This is no more evident than at every gathering, where a couple of people with digital cameras circle around like hyenas, coaxing you into poses, staging photos, documenting the party on Facebook (and increasing their Album collection from 101 to 102) as evidence that you ‘get out sometime’ – and by extent, that you are popular or “socially adept”.

According to an article in SMH:

An Australian study shows how Facebook and other forms of online social networking are now “ingrained” and how, for many, their friendships have come to depend on it.

Clearly, this growing trend carries wider ramifications for wider society and teens’ social development. 20 years ago, to find out about somebody, you would actually have to have a real conversation with them. Today, contact is limited to unadorned words typed onto a message. The entire process of interaction disappears. You cannot judge emotion or feeling this way (and emoctions are certainly no substitute). You can’t see, or smell or touch the person whom you are talking to. All you are doing is exchanging pleasantries through an Ethernet cable. At least with a phone, you are able to hear a voice – one of the five senses that forms a connection – if a tenuous one at best. With Facebook and social networking in general – actual contact is a bare minimum. You don’t know whether you’re talking to a 17 year old friend-of-a-friend, or an unemployed tradesman in Azerbaijan. This is worrying – and this is where our basic function as humans, to socialise – loses it’s meaning, ironically, on a website designed for that very purpose.

A typical profile

I have a confession to make. I like Facebook. There is something appealing about “stalking” your friends. Seeing what their hobbies are. Whether you share similar musical tastes. When to remember to buy them a birthday present. When to congratulate them on the promotion/graduation/new job. There is something quite useful about talking to friends on the other side of the world, with whom you would normally have no contact. There is something fun and naughty about seeing what your friends get up to these days. But when harmless Facebook surfing in small quantities becomes a substitute for real social interaction or dare I say – life itself, that’s when it is no longer a Social Network, but a dehumanizing substitute for real life.