Unlike in real life, our online friendships are not subject to a healthy natural decay.
Thanks to social-networking sites like Facebook, many of the people that otherwise would have drifted out of our lives can now be linked to us indefinitely online, keeping track of us in the virtual world even if we no longer have any contact with them in “real life.” It’s a peculiar situation, evidenced by the introduction of terms like “Facebook Creeping” and FOMO (fear of missing out) into our vocabularies. But what are the wider implications of these changes?
Social networks enable us to cheat the natural order of things. In our ability to pore over photo albums and analyze status updates, we gain access to information that’s generally reserved for a close friend without actually having to be one. We look at others’ profiles because we are nosy, and because we want to make sure we’re not missing out – that we’re on par with our colleagues and friends. Furthermore, social networks create unnatural digital bonds that keep us entangled in unnecessary relationships. Most of the time it’s harmless, but in certain cases (ex-boyfriends, toxic friendships) these relationships could be unhealthy. A 2011 study identified a condition called “Facebook Envy” arguing that reading what others share on social networks might actually have a negative impact on mood. The existence of “Facebook Depression” is also being debated among health-care professionals.
I believe it is the lack of natural social decay that is driving some of these behaviours. After all, while some relationships end explosively, the majority decay naturally in a slow and gradual process. We drift apart. We lose contact. Far from replicating this natural passive disconnection online, we are forced to deliberately hit the “Unfriend” button, severing the connection in a swift and decisive manner. “Unfriending” is seen as a digitally aggressive act, and can often carry social implications in the real world. (An extreme example: In Iowa, a woman was arrested for burning down the house of someone who had unfriended her on Facebook.) It’s much easier to simply stay connected to these people online, even if we never communicate with them. Thus, we continue to be “Facebook friends” with people who aren’t really our friends.
Is it really necessary to stay connected to such people? Of course not, but many of us do so because it’s easier than having to look your colleague in the eye and explain why you haven’t accepted his or her friend request yet. We’d rather avoid that awkward moment, so we continue to broadcast pieces of our digital selves to an ever-growing circle that includes bosses, acquaintances, and distant relatives. The result? A need for better and more comprehensive privacy policies that take into account these social complexities.
These policies, however, are often in opposition to the corporate bottom line. Consider, for instance, Facebook’s never-ending push for users to publicly share more information about themselves. It is in Facebook’s best interest for us to continue to “friend” as many people as possible, as it provides the company with more data that it can extract and sell. As a result, Facebook is becoming a broader web that documents the connections of the people we have encountered in our lives, rather than a representation of our closest friends. For Mark Zuckerberg, social decay shouldn’t exist at all.
This, however, is not the only option.
One company that is introducing an alternative approach is Path, a mobile social network that uses the principles of Dunbar’s Number in an effort to manage social decay. Dunbar’s Number (commonly cited as 150) comes from the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, and represents the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”
Once users reach that 150 limit on Path, they’ll only be able to add another friend by cutting someone from their list. In this way, Path forces people to constantly evaluate their existing friendships by facing social decay head on.
It will be interesting to see how this social dynamic plays out. If I have 1,000 friends, I might not notice if someone has unfriended me – but I will definitely notice if I’m cut from a list of 150 people, especially if we have mutual friends. What impact will this have?
In this age of social networking, algorithms will continue to evolve to account for the various types of digital relationships that we have. Facebook and Path seem to be taking this in two very different directions, but is either one the right solution? Is there a way to organize our social relationships online that doesn’t lead to unhealthy behaviour?
Photo courtesy of Reuters.