Relationship: It’s Complicated

Ignoring my grandma… friending my enemies… WTF? Is it even reasonable to expect social media to reflect the depth our social life? And when it fails, what do we stand to lose? (+ tips & hacks)

Facebook, in a rare instance of honesty

I have recently become more interested in the “It’s Complicated” option in Facebook’s relationship status. It has hit me that it might be the most honest aspect of the site’s interface. While every third internet user on earth holds a Facebook* profile, none of the site’s users are getting an adequate representation of their social life. This is not due to some broken code or an untested interaction design. No, it’s actually our fault.

*Facebook, is a great case-study for these questions, but they can be asked about many of the social media tools we use these days (Buzz is definitely also relevant, though we don’t use it).

Why should it be so, hmmm… “complicated”?

Why should it be so complicated? We are already busy defining our social life anyway, we are in fact putting relationships into boxes all the time. Some people we call friends, others we call family, others are our group members, others we might admire and define ourselves as their fans. Many of the people you would like to associate yourself with would probably fall somewhere along these lines. In that sense what’s so wrong about Facebook giving us a tool to manage and present this?

Sign here, here and here, now we’re friends.

The only relationship I have ever signed into an official contract, is the one with my wife, Galia. Many of our friends chose to skip marriage as they didn’t feel a need for a bureaucratic intervention into their personal relationship. Yet the same friends and even non-friends send me contracts every day requesting to officially confirm our relationship. Indeed getting a “friend request” is a very awkward thing. It is just like being sent a contract requiring both sides to declare their relationship to the world (and indeed this friend information in Facebook is extremely public). Log in… confirm here… confirm here… confirm here… These “social” transactions are as official, controlled and mathematical as any of your credit card transaction (only less private).

That is not the way relationship works. It is not an on/off thing, it changes and it is reshaped. It cannot even be placed on a single continuum, it is multidimensional and is very, very hard to quantify.

@Heart, please alert me when a relationship changes, ok?

Using an interface to manage your social life requires us to externalize emotions, express them, and constantly update them. It is very different from the way we manage other information online. We converse through emails and comments, collaborate on documents… Always responding to an external social stimulus from our peers to update the social object – the conversation, the document. It’s all relational.

There is no social object in social networks other than your profile – the mask that would never quite fit your face. It sits there, for everyone to see, blocking your sight, constantly out-of-date, constantly challenging you. Unless the Fecebook engineers come up with a way for our hearts to plug directly to their system, we would always play catch up with our profiles.

It is hard impossible to constantly be ahead of ourselves, but even if we could, can we truly express our subjective emotions through one objective interface? On Facebook, friendships are forever, and so are breakups. We cannot be less friends, it’s a black and white thing. There are no best-friends or just acquaintances – you’re either a friend or you’re nobody. But even if I could define social proximity or “rate my friends” as some third-party Facebook applications invite me to, why should I? This is hard work, it does not really represent my social life and it just becomes more broken interfaces that are always out of date.

Finally, this online mask is not the emotion itself, it is an expression of it, and therefore it is a social act to be performed. I win points for performing friendship and I lose points for ignoring or worse “unfriending”.

Friend requests: the daily dose of guilt

Confirm? Or live with the guilt?

After using Facebook for a while most of the friend requests I get are by people I hardly know/forgot/don’t know. Every time that happens I mainly feel guilty. Maybe it’s an ex-student from 8 years ago, or someone I met in a conference or a colleague or just someone nice that wants to be my friend. How would I ever know? So I check their friends, and sometimes it helps but often they are friends of friends of friends that I have accepted because it was easier than facing the guilt.

So I just click the recommended blue “confirm” button and avoid the grey “ignore” button. And that’s how my Facebook has lost any social relevance. My feed is full of updates from people I don’t know. These people invite me to events that I am geography prevented from attending, they suggest I become a friend of their other friend that I don’t know or that I should become a fan of the company, organization, person or cartoon figure that I don’t know or don’t care about. And that’s a real shame because all this noise makes me miss or ignore my friends conversations and events. Facebook used to be useful, but I was too coward to hit the “ignore” button.

When I break and chose to “ignore” I am consumed by guilt. What have I become? Am I a snob? These are people who want to be my friends, how dare I refuse something as friendly as a friend request?

How I “ignored” grandma

I am sorry grandma, but I don't think it will work out. -ignore-

I love my grandma, and I love the fact that she’s using the internet, especially since we live almost 10,000km away from each other. I have her on Skype and we chat from time to time. I must say these Skype conversations probably provide us more intimacy than we used to have face to face. It’s really great. But then one day I got a Facebook alert: “Chana Levy wants to be friends on Facebook”.

Here are a couple more things about my grandma, she is in her late 70s, and like all my mother’s side of the family she is identifying politically with the Israeli religious right. If you read this blog long enough you would know that my political views definitely lean to the other side, and that I do have a need to express them. And I indeed express these views on my blog, on Twitter and on Facebook, and I try to engage in honest exchange about them.

But not with grandma. That’s just not the kind of relationship we have. She is not about to change her views and I respect that, so I don’t try. She is aware of my political views and loves me despite of them. If we do discuss politics on Skype it is very carefully, and very briefly, then I tell her about Galia, the cat, my job and about planning to return to Israel.

It is really hard to keep secrets on Facebook, and it is not like I am trying to hide anything (though if I was gay I would have definitely wanted anyone but my grandma to know that). It is about intimacy, an intimacy that changes from one person to another and cannot be configured in numbers and options.

So why should I confirm my grandma’s friend request? Or worse, why should I be required to “ignore” her?

I did “ignore” her. I still feel bad about it.

What about my enemies?

The small crowd of actual “friends” that I could still recognize on Facebook mostly fitted the type of intimacy that I would like to converse with. Or so I thought… Until one day someone commented with a pretty aggressive tone to one of my political status updates. Unsurprisingly, I had absolutely no idea who the guy was or since when are we “friends”. A quick lookup at our mutual friends drew the connection, we probably met in some tech conference, so there really should not be any reason we would really have much in common.

One of my exchanges with my FB "frienemy"

I started noticing more and more of his status updates, with their recurring offensive mentions of “Barak Hussein Obama”, outrageous incrimination of Israeli and international human rights organizations and constant justifications of for settler and army violence against Palestinians. After the second time he posted an aggressive comment on one of my status updates I decided that that’s it! we’re not friends and we never were. I am going to “Unfriend” him!

Just before I hit the “unfriend” button and relieved myself of his offensive online presence, I was reminded of Cass Sunstein’s critique in 2.0. His main critique in that book is that the hyper-personal information filtering that makes the likes of Google News and Facebook so great is endangering our public sphere and our democracies by creating echo chambers and information cocoons in which we are only confronted with like-minded people. Sunstein claims the actual effect of these environments are further group polarization, in which as long as members in the group are not confronted with views opposite to their own, a group of like-minded peers will quickly be following the more vocal voices and become more extreme.

Someone has invaded my cozy echo-chamber… How dare I block him away? I decided not to “unfriend” him. I actually respond to his status updates from time to time. I feel that engaging him helps me improve my own arguments much more than the easy leeway I get from my like-minded friends. It also teaches me how he constructs his arguments and builds his rational. I find this extremely important, even if I would never manage to convince him.

This relationship is possible despite Facebook, not thanks to it. Other than some interest in Technology and the same nationality we don’t have much in common so we’re not really friends, we are actually very far from that. We are classic political rivals, with a huge gap between us. The fact I have only one contact of this kind is really ridiculous.

Friend, yes/no, confirm/ignore, so what? It’s all fun… right?

You might say: so what’s the big deal? You don’t like Facebook, don’t be on Facebook…

Well, I think Facebook is actually pretty useful for managing events. It can also be a good way of sharing online content. Others find other uses for it. Plus it’s not really going away soon. But it is not only Facebook’s efficiency that is at stake here.

To make better use of these simplistic tools we end up simplifying our social life. To make up for the inadequate privacy features we give it up all together. To make up for the lack of intimacy we stick to non-committing general communication. Since there’s no room for antagonism, we stick to our groups of like-minded individuals.

It is not “just cyberspace”, online interaction matters. Time spent on Facebook is constantly soaring, a lot of our social life *is* online, but it is crippled and we should realize it is.

//End rant: We are “Friends” no more! (Tips & Hacks)

End rant. So complaining about what’s wrong is easy, and we have already established there’s not much sense blaming the technology for not accomplishing this impossible task. So what is there to be done?

Recently I have found that a lot of the conflicts and challenges around culture and technology revolve around an attempt at scaling subjectivity. That is also the case with Facebook, how can we get more than 450 million users’ subjective social life on one unifying objective platform. I am not sure this is a task that can really be solved, but I do intend to start writing about it soon (stay tuned).

There’s a lot that can be done, I would suggest the place to start would be in changing norms and terminology:

  1. I hereby declare none of my Facebook friends as “friends”. From now on they will be known as “contacts”.
    I hereby declare I didn’t “ignore” my grandma. I simply “skipped” the option of connecting with her on Facebook.
    This is not just an arbitrary statement. I actually modified Joe Simons Greasemonkey hack to make sure that as soon as my Facebook page loads all appearances of the word “friend” will be changed to “contact”. You can get the userscript here. (requires the Firefox browser & the Greasemonkey plugin)

    Download: Don't "Friend" Me (literally) - a social hack!

  2. I hereby declare that any obscure “contact” request I get from now on will be kindly forwarded to this post. You can do the same, here’s a “short” url:
    (You can Tweet it too!)
  3. To allow my echo-chamber to be further invaded I have started a Twitter* (@mushon/opposition*) list of people I often disagree with on a political, ideological, philosophical, whatever level. It’s just a start and it’s not easy, I am sure it will soon be extended. I encourage you to do the same and maybe post a link to your Twitter list on the comments I would love to follow some of your opposition myself. (the enemy of my enemy is my friend contact)
    *EDIT (May 7, 2010): This list is now deleted. The idea has spiraled off a pretty unexpected/confusing/inspiring exchange between Adam Greenfield and myself, read about it on my following post: Engagement is Everything, a dialogue
  4. More suggestions are welcomed (please comment / trackback)

*Speaking of Twitter, I think the term “following” is pretty straight forward. I also find its asymmetrical relationships more appealing.

Stan, poke your grandma!

I would leave you with a segment of this brilliant South Park Episode:

And please, if you enjoyed this don’t “friend” me on Facebook, but you can definitely follow me on Twitter.