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Exploring Facebook

Facebook is a phenomenom.

– It has more than 750 million active users
– The average user has 130 friends
– People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook (Facebook stats Aug. 2011)

What´s more, Facebook could be worth $100bn by spring next year according to some reports, a fanciful figure perhaps, but considering that Goldman Sachs and Digital Sky Technologies have invested $450m and $500m respectively the figure begins to sound more plausible.

Thus given the magnitude of the institution, how can sociology attempt to explore this incredibly globalised form of communication?

Well, one of the first sources of ´sociology´ comes from Facebook´s resident ´psychologist/sociologist´, Cameron Marlow. He found that:

  1. Many people have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but only actively communicate with a few. “Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever,” says Marlow.
    2. The average male Facebook user with 120 friends leaves comments on 7 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 4 friends
    3. The average female Facebook user with 120 friends leaves comments on 10 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 6 friends.
    4. The average male Facebook user with 500 friends leaves comments on 17 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 10 friends.
    5. The average female Facebook user with 500 friends leaves comments on 26 friends’ photos, status updates, or wall messages or chats with 16 friends.

The ´Dunbar´ number states that the “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”, is generally accepted to be about 150. So, considering the average user has 130 friends, the Dunbar number appears apt. Yet, on closer inspection, we don´t really have any kind of intimate relationship with anywhere near that number. The vast majority of Facebook users are perhaps not exclusively interacting with any more people than in pre-SNS days. Yet, it is very clear that sites such as Facebook have changed the way we interact – not only are our ‘friends’ privy to our photos, updates, bio info. and statuses, they are also witness to what others say about all these things. Thus, Facebook has opened up our private lives to others on an unprecedented level, so much so that many users have left their profiles open to complete strangers. This holds ramifications for individuals – many have suffered cyber bullying, stalking, sexual abuse, fraud and a number of other negative factors. The concept of ‘privacy’ is being re-addressed, indeed, Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that ‘privacy is no longer the norm”, he argues that users of Facebook are knowingly offering personal information to a public forum. Yet, many attack these claims, arguing that many users are ignorant of the way Facebook uses this information and perhaps more damningly, these critics argue that Facebook intentionally does not publicise the need for privacy settings.

In many ways Erving Goffman’s ‘Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life’ (1951) lends itself extremely well to this exploration. Goffman utilsed the metaphor of the stage to help articulate how humans interact and display their ‘self’ to others. In the ancient Greek, “persona-lity” has a dramatic meaning – the ”mask” we wear it wherever we go as we present ourselves to ourselves and to others. It reflects our self-concept – what we seek to maintain about ourselves –  For Goffman, humans are characterised by the use of a number of varying masks, these masks help individuals only represent the details they wish to disclose about themselves; therefore, our masks vary according to every social situation. Thus, in many ways, sites such as Facebook have become a key part of ‘the front’, it is now part of the stage and our friends are privy to the performance. Facebook helps project the social ‘me’ – parts of the self we wish to disclose; the comments, photos, statuses etc are all part of the ‘social setting’. Yet, this idealised front must conform to conventions, mores and rules required by the audience because the performance needs to be believed. Each of us are playing out social roles – in this case, I play out the roles of a man, teacher, son, husband, Tottenham fan etc. Therefore, each mask we wear suits the role we are playing. At school a certain level of professionalism is expected when I interact with teachers, students and parents, therefore my mask is adjusted accordingly. However, when I am watching a football match in the pub, my mask changes, I am able to present a different persona. But, SNS’s have changed this often neat distinctions between the different stages, it has merged many together. For example, my friends include old school friends, colleagues, family members, university friends etc., so it is harder to present a mask which applies to each of these roles. Whilst this new public arena could be considered ‘front stage’ – a place where people very carefully cultivate their ‘me’, there are dangers too. The audience is able to interact with the projected self through tagging, photo comments and wall comments. Thus, although Facebook allows people to create an ideal representation of their ‘self’, there is great potential for this version of the ‘self’ to be besmirched – therefore, the self can be discredited in front of the audience if the user does not convey a wholly realistic presentation. I think that many users fail to understand this and this is why they are often subject to embarrassment or even humiliation. Too often, users get confused about the role they are playing on Facebook and give away too much of their ‘self’ to people who are not necessarily the correct audience.

Nevertheless, Goffman’s analytical framework helps us to understand the changing presentations of the self, we no longer live in a world of restricted social interactions, it is instead heavily globalised and very much stage managed. We are now projecting the ‘me’ to not only intimate friends but also to relative strangers. Moreover, I think that the success of Facebook owes very much to many peoples’ desire to make create a brand for themselves; Facebook allows them to leave a kind of legacy. We live in a celebrity driven world and many of us would like to make some kind of impact on the world at large. Much like family photos, it allows users to express an idealised version of their lives to the world at large – it is rare to see users to post photos of them having a really bad time!

Moreover, Facebook provides a sense of belonging, it is a community which provides a form of ‘social solidarity’ and sometimes ‘value consensus’; friends can share thoughts on any issue, they can post tributes to their heroes and the recently deceased, they can share in the ups and downs of lives. Without doubt, one of the fundamental draws of FB is the fantastic potential for voyeurism, it allows us to explore the lives of people from a far without ever having to communicate with them face to face – why else would we be ‘friends’ with someone from primary school who we have not met for years and would be likely to pass them by without recognising them?