The other day I saw this status from a friend on Facebook:
“Unless I’ve got something really witty to say or share something funny from some facebook page, I feel like I don’t deserve to make a facebook post. Pretty amazing when a social networking site can make you feel insecure about socializing.”
It is pretty amazing and I agree that there has been an increase in pressure to only share or post things that are interesting or funny. While this likely creates a more appealing experience for those scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed, it’s frankly not socializing. Social interaction is about personal dialogue between two or more people who don’t necessarily need to be having the most interesting or insightful interaction. An average real-world social interaction may involve telling one another about a boring day, or two people just getting to know each other. One person thinking to themselves for an hour before gathering all their friends and acquaintances to announce some carefully worded insight or to play a hilarious music video is a poor simulation for social interaction.
I want to explore this recent trend of de-socializing social media, focusing on Facebook specifically, as it has the most longevity and popularity. While I have to mainly draw from my personal posting habits on Facebook, I’m convinced they are indicative of a general trend. Back when I joined Facebook in 2006, I posted to friends’ walls daily and made status updates at least once a week. I’m sure that part of this can be attributed to the fact that I was discovering a new outlet for socializing and to the fact that I was in high school, which was a time when I had few ambitions beyond making friends. Still, for the next 3 or 4 years I used Facebook in a similar manner, perhaps with slightly less frequency as time passed. Now compare this to the last year or two, in which I haven’t posted a single status, I only post music or cool videos to my closest friends and family a couple times a week. If I think there is something that could be taken as inappropriate or offensive in the music or video, I send it as a private message instead. Maybe the change in my Facebook activity is a result of personal changes or changes in my friends, but I believe there are bigger factors at play.
Social Pressure to be Anti-social
Facebook has been around for 12 years and has been widely used for a majority of that time. Inevitably, unwritten Facebook rules or etiquette have arisen in these years. Anyone who uses Facebook on a regular basis has found that some people get too personal too often. (Almost) Nobody wants to be that person who annoys all their friends by sharing their hourly woes and triumphs as if the status update bar is the next line in their private diary. Because of this, there is actually a lot of social pressure to censor or refine one’s public posts.
I have found a huge social deterrent to be the frequent change in privacy policies. It’s hard to trust Facebook when one day you’re posting something you believe only your friends can see, and the next it turns out that anyone can see your posts until you manually change certain settings. Fortunately, Facebook has recently done a good job of making it very simple to control the privacy of specific posts or types of posts.
At the same time, user privacy is being compromised in other ways. Facebook apps have access to user data, and some have taken advantage of this by selling it to a third party for a relatively low cost (http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/10/25/facebook-investigating-how-bulgarian-man-bought-1-1-million-users-email-addresses-for-five-dollars/). Some Facebook pages will use an enticing title to get a large number of likes, and then sell to a brand to make that brand seem really popular. Obviously, these spammy tactics are harmful to the Facebook community. The idea that one’s privacy could be compromised without their immediate knowledge is frightening, especially in an age where it’s a standard practice for an employer to view potential employees’ profiles to weed out the seemingly irresponsible and unmotivated.
Social Media Marketing
Advertising and other business opportunities on Facebook, which include fan pages, brand pages, and apps, have been detrimental to socializing on Facebook. The fact is, nobody posting ads or running their company’s Facebook page is there to socialize. They simply want to get more attention and drive sales. While giving users options to like and share brands and products does encourage socializing, users also have to wade through posts that have nothing to do with their personal interests. It’s a fine line that I don’t think Facebook or online marketers have gotten right yet.
Personal Conversation vs. Screaming for Attention
One big thing that social media sites don’t focus on enough is the fact that socializing is traditionally, and I would say inherently, intimate. It’s a conversation or a few words shared between you and a friend or a small group of people. At some point, there are too many people in the room, and you can’t feasibly communicate and personally connect with them all at once. Facebook statuses and tweets are analogous to a shouting match in which every person is screaming for attention from all their friends at the same time. This is one thing I think Google+ got right. With circles, users can share things with a targeted group of people that all have some kind of common ground. However, with most social sites, there is so much information from so many people, a user is bound to miss details and intimacies that they would typically get in a real social setting and they’re bound to see plenty of things you don’t care about.
So what does all this mean for online marketing? Well for the most part, Facebook users aren’t opposed to giving likes to brand pages, as long as those pages aren’t controversial and are relevant to their interests of course. But overall, spreading your brand name is more difficult, as users have become more reluctant to share anything of low quality. On the other hand, if you have some really high quality content, today’s Facebookers will jump on it. Users are eager to share really great stuff, and if it came from a brand they like and trust, that’s even better. This content could be a cool promotional deal, but it could also be a funny video or some insight on a current event or holiday. If marketers treat users who like their pages as friends instead of customers, I think they will bring back some of the social aspects that social media has been losing, and they will ultimately gain trust and support.
Reclaiming any further socialization falls on those at Facebook who handle privacy. Maybe social media is moving away from socializing. Maybe “social” has a different meaning in the context of the internet. Maybe we should leave the socializing for the real world and keep our shouting matches to the virtual world. Factors such as body language and vocal inflections may never play a part in social media, but I believe that social media used to be better for socializing, and that it could and should be made even better than it used to be.