I remember watching a TV documentary in about 2006 in which a series of intelligent, successful people were interviewed about a new internet phenomenon of which they were part. The interviews mentioned poking, and updating statuses, and it all sounded somewhat time-consuming and potentially dangerously addictive, as indeed the interviews bore out. Best steer clear, I thought to myself.
A couple of years later, someone from my old school cohort decided to use this new-fangled social media to gather together a reunion, so,despite my earlier reservations, I became a member of Facebook. I never actually made it to the reunion, and not long after the event, the person who had looked us all up de-friended the lot of us. The Facebook habit stuck though, and, in a way that I couldn't have foreseen in May 2008, has evolved into a poignant diary of the last six years for me. From the start (first status update ever: 'is enjoying a nice glass of Syrah'), I made a rule for myself that I've never regretted; I wouldn't write anything on Facebook that I wouldn't mind either my mother, or my bishop reading. Just as well, as my mum became a Facebook member a few years later. As the documentary had warned me, social media can be addictive, , and as time went on, another rule came into play; I'd only post once a day at the most; no getting obsessed or boring everyone with the minutae of my life.
As I started to play with this new mode of communication, I was genuinely puzzled to notice a less agreeable feature of the way in which it was being used; that of 'un-friending' (or is it 'de-friending?) In certain cases, yes, I could see that an ex-boyfriend might not be the best sort of person to have hanging around your Timeline, but besides those sorts of cases, why would anyone do that? In 2009, after a whole year of posting, I was slightly uncomfortable to hear someone talking about their regular 'culls'. It all sounded rather sinister; I found myself wondering if the perceived anonymity of the internet (which, of course, Facebook and other social media sites de-bunk conclusively) gives people the sense of freedom to do and say things to other people that would be completely socially unacceptable in what what fast becoming known as 'real life.' At best, I reasoned, the motivation behind de-friending is illogical; it's not as if Facebook is a child's party and you're only allowed to invite a certain number of friends. De-friending involves deliberate exclusion. For the first time, I realised, it was possible for one healthy adult to say to another 'I don't want to be your friend any more' and not look utterly ridiculous. Unsurprisingly, one major critique of Facebook is that it was started by kids, and reduces us all to the level of the playground spat. So a third rule was instituted: no de-friending of people unless I accept a friend request and then find that I have no idea who the person is, after all. (It's happened once.)
So why are Facebook, and the ever-growing plethora of social media sites, particularly complex when it comes to enhancing or eroding human relationships? This was the question I was pondering as I saw online nastiness repeatedly. Is social media worth the hassle of having my faith in humanity dashed on a regular basis? Does the good it might potentially do outweigh the bad it definitely does? I stuck with it, and am glad that I have.
One answer to the 'why is social media particularly prone to be used to hurt people?' question (and we've all read the horrific newspaper stories about cyberbullying), is that our categories have been scrambled. If that sounds a bit obscure, let me put it like this: we assess what we hear or read in the light of the person who is writing or speaking. If it's a tantruminng toddler demanding a snack, we might respond by gently calming her down and using that time-honoured trick of distraction. If it were a starving refugee asking for a snack, although the words spoken might be identical, our response would, and should be, very different. Likewise, if we read a professor of philosophy's latest treatise, we might analyse it as objectively as we can; if we read the same treatise copied and pasted and palmed off as a fifteen year old's homework, our response would be very different. We weigh what is said according to who is saying it, and in that quaint old-fashioned place called 'real life' we know this, and live it out all the time.
Online it's a different kettle of fish. Online forums were - and still are - places of ferociously cut-throat debate, simply because the restraints of social norms don't work there; after all, we have no way of telling whether that person posting about the philosophy of religion is a professor or a twelve-year-old. The de-personalisation of human interactions fast became a feature of online discourse, and I suspect the most of the time, that was okay, because everyone knew that, and played to the new rules. Of course, for many the anonymity promised by a computer screen brought out the worst in human nature, but cyber-bullying by an avatar with a made-up screen name is very different from being bad-mouthed by a neighbour. Back in the real world, we know our neighbours' names (hopefully); we say 'good morning' to them and take in their parcels (hopefully). That is, until they have a Facebook cull.
They might not do it maliciously; one of the complexities of this new mode of communication is that it's so new still that we haven't really yet agreed on a set of rules to play by, or maybe it's more that it encourages no particular rules at all and therefore everyone approaches it differently so that for one person, de-friending might be a pragmatic spur-of-the-moment click of a mouse with no great thought, whereas for another, it might be the sure signal of the end of any association at all. We have no way of telling what our Facebook actions mean to another person, as they have not yet developed a reliable semiotic value; we know not what we do when we de-friend. More generally and ore profoundly, neither can we ever know for sure what we represent to each other; we might call it 'cleaning up our list'; for one of these 'cleaned up', it might be the loss of the only remaining schoolfriend or that of the only person who shares similar political convictions. Because we can never know what we represent to one another, we can never know what we are damaging or destroying by de-friending.
Why Facebook is particularly complex is that it scrambles two worlds, the world of online cut-and-thrust de-personalised debate and the world of the neighbour whose parcel we take in. Because it scrambles the two, it has real potential to undermine and fracture real-life community in a way that anonymous online discourse doesn't, and which it'd be unusual to find in real life (after all, no grown-up has ever said out loud to me, 'I don't want to be your friend any more.' They might have thought it, granted...)
So that's why I don't de-friend people on Facebook. This new technology has run ahead of our ability to work out how it might strengthen and bond real-life community, or maybe it has offered an alternative to that community altogether. In either case, how we use it will shape and define it, for good or ill, and there's much good it can be used to do. And, as I find on an almost daily basis, it's fun. Let's try not to do harm with it, eh?