In 2004 I started college at UC Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is an eclectic place, which is illustrated by the student body’s decision to cast a banana slug as our illustrious mascot. Somewhere in my first quarter of freshman year, a friend introduced me to The Facebook. It hadn’t yet shifted to the singularly iconic “Facebook” by then. I remember thinking that it wasn’t as good as MySpace.
Back then Facebook was useful. You had to have a “.edu” email account to register. I could list all of my classes at UCSC in my profile, and find other students in the same courses. That way if I missed a lecture it was an easy search and message to find someone with notes. By the time I graduated, this feature was gone.
I initially interacted with my first real boyfriend on Facebook. He was the son of my mom’s work friend. She told me to find some way to ask him if we could carpool for coming home at Thanksgiving. Our innocent messages turned to a clandestine flirtation, and then about a year and a half of dating. My next major college boyfriend also started via some profile stalking and flirtatious messages.
Soon it was everywhere. My first job out of college relied on me to create a social media presence. In the years since, I’ve specialized in social media marketing, a field that I never thought would net me any funds.
Now my mom is on Facebook. My octogenarian great aunt has an account. I’ve had to go through old photos and delete anything that wasn’t business friendly, because something that was once devoted to personal friendships is now searchable by potential employers.
Truth be told, this is all a preamble. I feel like these developments in social media can be regrettable, but understandable. The real problem with social media is how we, as participants, use it.
In the last 3 years, I’ve found out two friends have died via Facebook. The first was Dominic. He was 23. He died in 2012. We were in high school orchestra together. He was a freshman when I was a junior. Our conductor paired us to play the second movement of the Bach Double Concerto. It was the slow movement, and we both had terrible stage fright. It was not pretty. But like soldiers from the same horrific battle, we had remained oddly connected. At least I felt that way, and he’s not here to argue.
The second was Summer. She was 25, and she died last month. She and I had moved through the same circles in Monterey. I’m not sure where we actually met, but we connected one lunch where we discovered we’d primarily dated the same men in the previous year. Some women would have been threatened. We compared notes.
That one lunch was enough to solidify a friendship. She was one of the funniest people I ever met. In times of crisis, she was there. She was solid. When I met my husband I let us drift apart. I didn’t stop caring about her welfare, but I didn’t have the time to maintain an active friendship. I was a bad friend. Instead of actually talking to her, I watched her wall, and liked what she posted that made it to my newsfeed. It made me feel like we were still close.
The newsfeed can be a deceptive device. The average Facebook user has 338 friends according to a quick search. Think on that number. I’m quite gregarious, and I have over 400 “friends.” Of those 400 folks, I see only the updates from a few dozen online. It’s not that the rest aren’t posting ever, it’s just that Facebook has an algorithm that narrows down newsfeed options to only whatever you are likely to interact with. This is generally determined by recent friend ads, likes, and common searches.
The folks who make it to your newsfeed might never see what you post. Conversely, someone may see everything that you do when none of his or her posts make your feed. You never know who is really paying attention.
But it’s so easy to imagine that if you see something someone has said or done online to feel like you’re still real friends. Who knows how many people feel that way about you that you’ve never thought twice about?
The other issue is that we only ever see what someone decides to share. Most people will only show the good side of things. I suffer from depression and anxiety, but my social media posts are generally light-hearted and funny. You would never know from my online presence that my life is anything but bliss. It’s impossible to know anything more than broad strokes of a person’s life by how they present themselves online. I never knew Dominic was so sick or Summer so sad by watching their posts alone.
If it wasn’t for Facebook though, I might not have even known they died. I’m not sure if that’s worse. Then again, would I have continued to feel so connected and then so heartbroken by their deaths had it not been for social media?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Facebook or social media. It can be a useful tool to help people communicate. I have lived in 4 states and nearly a dozen towns in my life, and social media provides a constant to help me stay in touch. The problem arises when anyone, myself included, starts to rely on social media to maintain or affirm friendships.
I am guilty of allowing myself into the lull of passive online friendships. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t believe that quitting social media is the answer. That removes one symptom but doesn’t alleviate the underlying problem. Instead I plan to participate with caution, and rely on active communication to keep relationships alive.