Despite its ubiquity, Facebook isn’t popular with certain trend-setters, technocrats, reporters, teachers, anti-bullying advocates, pro-privacy advocates, or psychologists. Even share prices are lower than we expected. Bad Facebook!
As if we needed any more convincing of its relative worthlessness, a new study making the rounds reports young adults who rely on Facebook for social interaction take a hit to their self-esteem as they read about the exploits of their more successful and well-connected friends. Whether those exploits are exaggerated for the benefit of the Facebook audience was not discussed; my guess is they are.
The 87 volunteers for this study were all in their late teens or early twenties, a time in life when neither self-esteem nor the ability to distinguish between reality and bullsh*t has been fully developed. The researchers found their subjects felt more depressed, more dissatisfied with their own lives, and more envious of the successes they think are enjoyed by their online peers. Boo!
After perusing the study, I’ve reached my own conclusion: Facebook may very well be bad for high school students and for post-graduates, whether in or out of college, who haven’t reached the age of twenty-five. But for the rest of its 1.5 billion users, most of whom appear to be older than that, it seems to be working pretty well. In fact, for those of us who understand both the virtues and limitations of social networking, it provides a substitute water cooler or an online salon, a casual get-together, or a reunion center.
In other words, it does what it’s supposed to. It connects people.
I’m not suggesting that envy and low self-esteem are exclusively the province of young people. Nor would I propose that mature adults are immune from the need to self-aggrandize, shock, titillate, bully, or measure their worth in terms of either their professional achievements or their material possessions.
There’s a fitfully amusing ad for Nokia that shows thirty and forty-something parents behaving badly while jockeying for position at a middle school performance, trying to one-up each other with their phones’ cameras. Naturally, the hip, young people holding the new Nokia phone are in the back, unhurriedly watching the proceedings with the sort of detached irony that signals ultimate trendiness.
As far as trendiness is concerned, there are endless sites and apps that allow us to opine, spout off, share, show off or otherwise make noise in a world so overcrowded we may fear we’re disappearing. I can’t pretend to keep up; I’m thankful I don’t need to.
What I do need—and what social networking offers—is a community. I don’t pretend that community provides all the advantages of a close-at-hand group, but it gives me quite a few. My online friends are people who seem to like other people and enjoy the novelty of connecting with other human beings. A great number of them moved onto Facebook after meeting at an online writers’ forum. We have in common our love of words, our efforts to be creative, our struggle to earn a living, our desire to be read, and a fair amount of mileage on our life odometers. If there is envy (we are, after all, human), it is not just tempered, but generally subsumed by our support for and interest in each other.
This past weekend, I met a group of those friends in Washington, DC. Previously, I’ve connected with online acquaintances in Miami, Amherst, Woodstock, Manhattan, and San Diego. Each gathering has been a joyous discovery of our common bonds, first forged online.
Social networking is a technology, which means it’s a tool. It can work for you, against you or with you. It can be used to connect or deflect, encourage or discourage, inspire or disparage, steal or share. I agree with the psychologists who insist it’s no substitute for face to face interaction. But when those sorts of exchanges aren’t readily available (and sometimes even when they are), Facebook manages to host the world’s biggest block party and supply the opportunity to meet some fabulous souls who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with you.
Which is, to my mind, the best way to use it.