While driving home from work a few days ago, I was listening to my usual radio station (Boston’s Mix 104.1), and a host was making fun of his co-host for spending so much time on Facebook. He couldn’t believe people are so “addicted” to Facebook when they could be spending quality time with their friends in person. He ranted on and on, seeming to think that Facebook users are socially inept, and wouldn’t listen to the reasons why Facebook is useful.
Since web 2.0 is a big part of my life, this really got me thinking. My job is to create social media applications, one of my hobbies is blogging, and all my friends are on Facebook. I also started college in Boston when Facebook was new, and I thought it was the most awesome thing since peanut butter.
Even though I’m a bit too old to say I grew up with Facebook, it’s hard to remember a time when I checked my email and then didn’t check my Facebook newsfeed right after. So according to this radio host, I’m socially incompetent. And so are all my friends. But I completely disagree. I still think Facebook is the coolest thing since peanut butter.
Social networks make it easy to keep in touch
I have 674 facebook friends. Some would consider this high, some would think it’s puny. I’m not trying to meet some quota or anything. I like to friend people that I’ve actually considered a friend or have ever had a good conversation with, and I’ll friend anyone from my high school. Photos are great because friends can tag each other in their albums. So even if someone I don’t know tags my friends, I can see what they’re up to, where they’re traveling, and what their lives are like. And I can post comments anywhere, which fosters conversation. So it’s really easy now to keep in touch with friends who have gone abroad, or friends who stayed out in LA after our semester there. Before social networks, I wouldn’t have had the time to call each one of my friends all over the world to find out what they’ve been up to. Now I can keep track of 674 of them at once. And sometimes, just a quick “Miss you, what have you been up to?” is enough to let them know that you’re thinking about them and you care.
Facebook’s also great for finding long-lost friends. During my freshman year of college, I was able to sit down to dinner with one of my best friends from kindergarten, when I lived in Brooklyn. Without Facebook, I wouldn’t have had any idea that we were going to the same college.
I also find LinkedIn a valuable social networking tool. In today’s economy, you never know when you’ll need to find a new job, and your network of professional connections can help you find new opportunities. Keeping in touch with coworkers has never been so easy, and you can find their latest contact information right on their LinkedIn profiles.
Social networks make it easy to make plans
Events are self explanatory, and help to organize big group events, study groups, and reunions. Status updates make it easy to announce a party you’re having, what movie you want to see, and when you’ll be visiting a city. The other month I posted that I was going to New York City, and within 10 minutes I got an offer to crash at friend’s apartment. It’s also easier to write on five of your friend’s walls “Shopping at the mall this Saturday?” and wait for the replies than to call everyone individually, leave voicemails, wait for return phone calls, and so on. It’s also easy to find people who share common interests: “Who wants to see XYZ Movie with me?”
Social networks make it easy to make new connections
Ever meet a friend of a friend and have tons in common, and then forget to exchange contact info? Now it’s super easy to find them on social networks, get their screen name, and make plans to see that indie band you were talking about. Social networks like LinkedIn make it easy to make new professional connections. Now if you meet someone at a conference and get their business card, it’s easy to reconnect on LinkedIn and find out more about their background, and how they can potentially help you with your new business idea.
The downside of social networks
People can get downright obsessive and stalkerish when it comes to the social networks, and that’s when it becomes a problem. If you’re not interacting with people in person anymore, that’s also a problem. Just like anything else, social networks should be used in moderation.
Then there’s also the privacy issues. Back when the internet was new, people were paranoid of putting their pictures on the internet, and letting the world know what they’re up to. Now, people will put anything up there, and a lot of times it seems that they forget that all your friends can read your wall posts. I’ve seen entire relationships play out on wall posts. I don’t know if they realize their drama is out there for everyone to see or not, but it can get quite interesting. It’s even become known that employers “stalk” their interview candidates on Facebook and Myspace to make sure they seem respectable. But now Facebook is really good about privacy issues. I can limit who sees my status, my pictures, my wall, and even who sees these RSS blog entries in my Facebook Notes.
As long as you use social networks to supplement your social life (and even your professional life), and are careful about privacy issues, there’s nothing wrong with being on them. The problem, I think, is when you use these social networks as your sole method of communication. But just because you use Facebook to make plans with friends or keep in touch with those who have relocated, it doesn’t mean you’re socially inept. It means that you’re saving a lot of time, and keeping in touch more often than you would have been able to before.
So what do you think? Do you think social networks are a threat to interpersonal relationships? Or do you think that they are a positive addition to society?