Face-off

  • Image credit: iStockphoto/Duncan Walker
  • Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004. It has since become the planet"â„¢s biggest social networking phenomenon.
  • In extreme cases, online social networking becomes a sad replacement for real human contact. Image credit: iStockphoto/Joselito Briones
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/Stephen Morris
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/Gene Chutka
  • Image credit: iStockphoto/Gene Chutka
Date:30 November 2008 Tags:, , , , , ,

I’m so totally, digitally close to you

On 5 September 2006, Mark Zuckerberg changed the way that Facebook worked, and in the process he inspired a revolt.

Zuckerberg, a doe-eyed 24-year-old CEO, founded Facebook in his dormitory room at Harvard two years earlier, and the site quickly amassed nine million users. By 2006, students were posting heaps of personal details on to their Facebook pages, including lists of their favourite TV shows, whether they were dating (and whom), what music they had in rotation and the various ad hoc “groups” they had joined (like “Sex and the City” Lovers).

All day long, they’d post “status” notes explaining their moods – “hating Monday”, “skipping class b/c I’m hung-over”. After each party, they’d stagger home to the dorm and upload pictures of the soused revelry, and spend the morning after commenting on how wasted everybody looked. Facebook became the de facto public commons – the way students found out what everyone around them was like and what he or she was doing. But Zuckerberg knew Facebook had one major problem: it required a lot of active surfi ng on the part of its users. Sure, every day your Facebook friends would update their profi les with some new tidbits; it might even be something particularly juicy, like changing their relationship status to “single” when they got dumped. But unless you visited each friend’s page every day, it might be days or weeks before you noticed the news, or you might miss it entirely.

Browsing Facebook was like constantly poking your head into someone’s room to see how she was doing. It took work and forethought. In a sense, this gave Facebook an inherent, built-in level of privacy, simply because if you had 200 friends on the site – a fairly typical number – there weren’t enough hours in the day to keep tabs on every friend all the time.

“It was very primitive,” Zuckerberg told me when I asked him about it recently. And so he decided to modernise. He developed something he called News Feed, a built-in service that would actively broadcast changes in a user’s page to every one of his or her friends. Students would no longer need to spend their time zipping around to examine each friend’s page, checking to see if there was any new information.

Instead, they would just log into Facebook, and News Feed would appear: a single page that – like a social gazette from the 18th century – delivered a long list of upto- the-minute gossip about their friends, around the clock, all in one place. “A stream of everything that’s going on in their lives,” as Zuckerberg put it.

When students woke up that September morning and saw News Feed, the fi rst reaction, generally, was one of panic. Just about every little thing you changed on your page was now instantly blasted out to hundreds of friends, including potentially mortifying bits of news – Tim and Lisa broke up; Persaud is no longer friends with Matthew – and drunken photos someone snapped, then uploaded and tagged with names. Facebook had lost its vestigial bit of privacy. For students, it was now like being at a giant, open party fi lled with everyone you know, able to eavesdrop on what everyone else was saying, all the time.

“Everyone was freaking out,” Ben Parr, then a junior at Northwestern University in Chicago, told me recently. What particularly enraged Parr was that there wasn’t any way to opt out of News Feed, to “go private” and have all your information kept quiet. He created a Facebook group demanding Zuckerberg either scrap News Feed or provide privacy options.

“Facebook users really think Facebook is becoming the Big Brother of the Internet, recording every single move,” a California student told The Star-Ledger of Newark. Another chimed in, “Frankly, I don’t need to know or care that Billy broke up with Sally, and Ted has become friends with Steve”. By lunchtime on the first day, 10 000 people had joined Parr’s group, and by the next day it had 284 000 members.

Zuckerberg, surprised by the outcry, quickly made two decisions. The first was to add a privacy feature to News Feed, letting users decide what kind of information went out. But the second decision was to leave News Feed otherwise intact. He suspected that once people tried it and got over their shock, they’d like it.

He was right. Within days, the tide reversed. Students began e-mailing Zuckerberg to say that via News Feed they’d learned things they would never have otherwise discovered through random surfing around Facebook. The bits of trivia that News Feed delivered gave them more things to talk about – Why do you hate Kiefer Sutherland? – when they met friends face to face in class or at a party.

Trends spread more quickly. When one student joined a group – proclaiming her love of Coldplay or a desire to volunteer for Greenpeace – all her friends instantly knew, and many would sign up themselves.

Users’ worries about their privacy seemed to vanish within days, boiled away by their excitement at being so much more connected to their friends. (Very few people stopped using Facebook, and most people kept on publishing most of their information through News Feed.)

Pundits predicted that News Feed would kill Facebook, but the opposite happened. It catalysed a massive boom in the site’s growth. A few weeks after the News Feed imbroglio, Zuckerberg opened the site to the general public (previously, only students could join), and it grew quickly; today, it has 100 million users.

When I spoke to him, Zuckerberg argued that News Feed is central to Facebook’s success. “Facebook has always tried to push the envelope,” he said. “And at times that means stretching people and getting them to be comfortable with things they aren’t yet comfortable with. A lot of this is just social norms catching up with what technology is capable of.”

In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet, when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness”. It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online.

In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging” – posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered.

One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a Web site and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates – limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message – on what they’re doing. There are other services for reporting where you’re travelling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced a few months ago, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.

For many people – particularly anyone over the age of 30 – the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme – the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

Twitter, in particular, has been the sub
ject of nearly relentless scorn since it went online. “Who really cares what I am doing, every hour of the day?” wondered Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, in an essay about Twitter. “Even I don’t care.”

Indeed, many of the people I interhim to sign up, too. Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and re-check the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like “I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus”; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich – and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalogue of sandwiches became oddly mesmerising, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update – each individual bit of social information – is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by – ad hoc, self-organising socialising. And when they do socialise face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

Facebook and Twitter may have pushed things into overdrive, but the idea of using communication tools as a form of “co-presence” has been around for a while. The Japanese sociologist Mizuko Ito first noticed it with mobile phones: lovers who were working in different cities would send text messages back and forth all night – tiny updates like “enjoying a glass of wine now” or “watching TV while lying on the couch”. They were doing it partly because talking for hours on mobile phones isn’t very comfortable (or affordable). But they also discovered that the little Ping- Ponging messages felt even more intimate than a phone call.

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-mostimportant message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.”

Yet, it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.

You could also regard the growing popularity of online awareness as a reaction to social isolation, the modern American disconnectedness that Robert Putnam explored in his book, Bowling Alone. The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind, and members of the growing army of the self-employed often spend their days in solitude. Ambient intimacy becomes a way to “feel less alone”, as more than one Facebook and Twitter user told me.

When I decided to try out Twitter last year, at first I didn’t have anyone to follow. None of my friends was yet using the service. But while doing some Googling one day, I stumbled upon the blog of Shannon Seery, a 32-year-old recruiting consultant in Florida, and I noticed that she Twittered. Her Twitter updates were pretty charming – she would often post links to camera-phone pictures of her two children or videos of herself cooking Mexican food, or broadcast her agonised cries when a flight was delayed on a business trip.

So on a whim I started “following” her – as easy on Twitter as a click of the mouse – and never took her off my account. (A Twitter account can be “private”, so that only invited friends can read one’s tweets, or it can be public, so anyone can; Seery’s was public.) When I checked in last month, I noticed that she had built up a huge number of online connections: she was now following 677 people on Twitter and another 442 on Facebook. How in heaven’s name, I wondered, could she follow so many people? Who precisely are they? I called Seery to find out.

“I have a rule,” she told me. “I either have to know who you are, or I have to know of you.” That means she monitors the lives of friends, family, anyone she works with, and she’ll also follow interesting people she discovers via her friends’ online lives. Like many people who live online, she has wound up following a few strangers – though after a few months they no longer feel like strangers, despite the fact that she has never physically met them.

I asked Seery how she finds the time to follow so many people online. The math seemed daunting. After all, if her 1 000 online contacts each post just a couple of notes each a day, that’s several thousand little social pings to sift through daily. What would it be like to get thousands of e-mail messages a day? But Seery made a point I heard from many others: awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message.

E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 per cent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some. Seery estimated that she needs to spend only a small part of each hour actively reading her Twitter stream.

Yet she has, she said, become far more gregarious online. “What’s really funny is that before this ‘social media’ stuff , I always said that I’m not the type of person who had a ton of friends,” she told me. “It’s so hard to make plans and have an active social life, having the type of job I have where I travel all the time and have two small kids. But it’s easy to tweet all the time, to post pictures of what I’m doing, to keep social relations up.” She paused for a second before continuing: “Things like Twitter have actually given me a much bigger social circle. I know more about more people than ever before.”

I realised that this is becoming true of me, too. After following Seery’s Twitter stream for a year, I’m more knowledgeable about the details of her life than the lives of my two sisters in Canada, whom I talk to only once every month or so. When I called Seery, I knew that she had been struggling with a three-day migraine headache; I began the conversation by asking her how she was feeling.

Online awareness inevitably leads to a curious question: what sort of relationships are these? What does it mean to have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook? What kind of friends are they, anyway? In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each hu

“The information we subscribe to on a feed is not the same as in a deep social relationship,” Boyd told me. She has seen this herself; she has many virtual admirers that hav
e, in essence, a parasocial relationship with her. “I’ve been very, very sick, lat

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