The problem with Facebook

Everyone’s first instinct is to be popular. To be part of a group is also human instinct or predilection, whichever way you see it. It’s basic anthropology 101. People use group identity to define themselves. How cool or nerdy you are depends on the group you choose. Belonging to a group used to be a survival tool out on the savannah, when we had already come down from the trees and were running through the tall grasses together in search of food and territory.

This also probably explains the primal quality of the success of Facebook, which has tapped into human nature and taken advantage of primate-human programming in a big way.  In the film Social Network, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is depicted as gawky, shyly rude and clumsy in social situations, and you wonder is it just sheer irony that Mr Zuckerberg goes on to create the ultimate social networking tool? Perhaps, it is because the idea was not his, according to urban legend, but that of the two Winklevoss brothers and their Indian friend, who were at the other end of the spectrum of collegiate life _ handsome, athletic and socially endowed. Mr Zuckerberg takes the idea over and makes it more than workable.

A social network in real life is a complicated beast. We do not interact with everyone in the same way, maintaining an elaborate system of subtly different and individual relationships with those we meet. And we maintain this web of individualised relationships for the rest of our lives. We do it, other apes do it _ we are after all just intelligent human apes. On the virtual world of Facebook, this intricacy cannot be achieved because of the lack of privacy, but it is a little more possible that computer code has not caught up with the complexity of the ape brain.

On Facebook, the worlds of George Costanza keep colliding. In one classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld’s engaged friend George finds his fiancé Susan befriending his friend Elaine, who belongs to his tight-knit social network of three friends. This network does not, absolutely does not, include his fiancé. He complains bitterly to Jerry that his personal worlds are colliding. And that is never a good thing. This, in a Seinfeldian nutshell, is also the problem with Facebook. A nosy acquaintance gets to read the comments you make to a real friend. They say you can block him, but not if you are afraid to offend the said acquaintance. Then even if you block this person, through mutual friends and other loopholes they can still see what you are doing on Facebook.

The virtual world of a Facebook page is like the crowded scene at an Indian wedding or an American high school reunion. You try to arrive looking your best. But everyone else who is there has come to mentally critique _ how good they look now, how much weight everyone else has put on, how reproductively challenged others are, how well others’ marriages are going, how smart their kids are, how much money they have and how much success they may have accrued. On Facebook, it is not friends you meet, but the judgement police.

It is like being in a National Geographic documentary about primates, and you have to be seen to be virtually grooming the flavour-of-the-month guy and seen to be leaving the right comment on alpha or beta’s wall to get a favour in return and climb up the social ladder. Have we been reduced to overhyped human chimps chained to our tribal,  genetic and computer codes? Being human means that we can choose to do things differently than we have been programmed to do. Perhaps we are just chumps forever falling victim to the next glamorous hustle that comes our way.

Footnote: Did a quick google search today (February 25, 2011) and came across another blog by Geeky Mom where she has aired her problems with Facebook and even made a reference, long before I did, to the Costanza worlds-colliding episode from Seinfeld . Small world.

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