Relative to some of my friends (real-world college friends, not the online ones who I have never met), I am a Facebook novice. Recently, I had a debate about journalistic ethics with several other journalists who live all over the world. It was the sort of argument that routinely happens in Bangalore’s Koshy’s or whatever your neighbourhood café happens to be. A group of opinionated people get together, start a topic; and proceed to fly off the handle. We yell and scream a bit; posture, preen and show off our knowledge; use logic; drop names; drag statistics in; and basically try to out-argue the other. This is what we used to do in college, remember? This is what you do when you meet friends and acquaintances in cafés. Or used to.
These days, social networking sites are the new cafés. It is where you meet people and exchange views. But there is one significant difference. In the real world, you have visual cues. You can massage your message based on real-time reactions from the other parties. If something you say makes the other person uncomfortable, you can tone it down instantly; or not. Not so online. When you say, “Come on, yaar,” it is not a conversational pause while you marshall your thoughts. It sounds forced and flippant. When you drop names, it reads exactly like what it is: posturing. All the foolish words you say in the heat of the moment don’t simply fly in the wind and disappear. They are recorded for all to see. Sometimes, when I go back and read what I’ve said on Facebook, I squirm. I consider deleting it but it seems like a cop-out.
Virtual reality: CNN journalist Octavia Nasr who paid the price for her tweets. AFP
Also Read Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns
Recording your off-the-cuff remarks can have real-life consequences as the CNN journalist who got fired from her job when she posted an admiring comment about a radical cleric on Twitter discovered; or the family that posted a vacation message and found their house burgled on return realized. The biggest problem that Facebook sceptics have with social networking sites is that everything seems like an announcement, since updates are read by a whole community of people, most of whom you don’t see on a regular basis. “No matter what you type, it seems like you are posturing,” said one entrepreneur who lurks on Facebook but posts next to nothing. “Even the most innocuous message seems like a boast.” I get what he is saying. Sharing emotions is what you do with friends. “I miss my kid; I have the flu; I feel crappy.” That kind of thing. All this is natural when you talk to friends. When you post the same thing as a status update, it seems like a town hall meeting, or therapy, where you reveal intimate details to perfect strangers.
Lots of people don’t have this issue. They live their lives out on Facebook. One 20-something woman posted minute-to-minute photos of her water birth with every anatomical detail, including placenta, revealed. This alarmed some of her “friends” enough to deactivate their Facebook account.
For others, Facebook updates can seem like bragging. If you don’t want to confess or brag, then what do you post? What is the value add? I think the trick is to view Facebook as a tool for information gathering and a vicarious dip into another person’s reality. To read too much into status updates and comments will cripple your ability to engage with any social networking site. I am trying to figure out how to do this, given that people like me are a minority in the Internet world. Hordes of others have managed to figure out how to use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to their advantage. And pretty soon, I want to be one of them.
I shouldn’t worry so much about posturing and bragging and appearing to be something I am not. As psychologist Sam Gosling points out, studies prove that no matter how you portray yourself on Facebook and other sites, viewers are surprisingly good at figuring out exactly who you are. What Gosling did was this: He chose 236 people who he knew pretty well. Then he presented their Facebook profiles to strangers and asked the strangers to assess the profiles. To his surprise, the assessments matched reality.
“I was surprised by the findings because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves,” said Gosling in an interview with Science Daily. “In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren’t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.”
Gosling’s findings are reassuring to Facebook sceptics like me. To know that even if you try to posture, most people figure out exactly who you are is a great relief.
The amount of time we spend online is its greatest flaw for most of us. Facebook and Twitter swallow up many of our working hours. There are tools such as “Freedom”, a downloadable paid application which will “lock” up your Internet after a certain length of time so that you cannot go back online. Time online is not my greatest issue; not being able to touch someone is.
You see, I am a vata, according to Ayurveda. Vatas enjoy touch and smell, just as pittas enjoy sight and sound. Touch is highly underrated. When you meet people in real life, you shake hands. As the conversation continues, you press their arm to make a point; or slap their back. In Facebook, you cannot touch anyone. That, to me, is its biggest drawback; and the crucial difference between real life and a social network.
Shoba Narayan dreads the day when Facebook designs an app that will allow you to reach through the computer and touch someone. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org