23 November 2009
Every day one more person seemed to catch the bug, yet another email would land asking to confirm a friend, or yet another person would ask if I had seen their photos on Facebook, or worse, tell me that photos of a party or dinner I had attended were now on Facebook.
This last point is the most irritating. Facebook is the Internet and frankly, I do not wish to have pictures of me posted on the Internet. And even if I did, I would like it to happen with both my knowledge and my consent. It must be something to do with my age and my cultural identity because I get seriously angry when someone posts a photograph taken of me in their home on the Internet, even if it is just a boring photograph of people sitting eating and drinking and smiling at a camera. My basic thinking is that my image belongs to me and that people should not have the right to publish my image without my consent.
But first, I decided I must give it a try. So I joined Facebook.
The first day was fun. I spent literally hours looking at pictures and pages of people from the long lost past. There were school reunions I had thankfully missed, weddings, birthday parties, all kinds of events laid out and available at the click of a button. So long as one person in the picture was my ‘friend’ I could see the whole album. I liked the groups too and the fan pages. It was tremendous.
By the end of the first week, I was increasingly asking myself what exactly is a friend? People I had never even heard of sent me friend requests, others I had maybe met once or twice. Their definition of ‘friend’ seemed rather far from my own. Given that the average number of friends is 130 and that many have several hundred friends, it seems that contacts would be a far better word than friend. And how telling that the verb ‘unfriend’ has just joined the dictionary as a direct result of Facebook!
After a month I was bored and once again irritated. To some extent, Facebook, Bebo and Myspace are a place where people pretend that their lives and thoughts are so interesting that they need to be documented and catalogued. Some personal pages are like a photo shoot from a gossip magazine: here is my home, here is my car, here I am with my best friends, here I am in Monte Carlo, here I am I at Nobu, here I am at Jo’s party. Look at me and look at the life I lead. Others are a stream of consciousness, occasionally witty and interesting but often pretty dull and superficial. More commonly it is a place to relate things that have made you laugh. All those jokes and you tube clips that were once emailed en masse, well no more, now they can just be posted.
Nothing wrong with that if that is what you want, but I worry about how the young use these sites. They seem to have become shop windows where people advertise and compete for attention. The pressure to present yourself as part of the ‘in-crowd’ must be relentless for a teenager today. What is more there is now a prevalent mentality that if you cannot show it, it did not happen. Whereas we once talked about trips we had taken, evenings we had spent, shows we had seen, now they must be photographed and these photos must be published.
Just like today’s celebrities lay out their lives in the media in a way that is far more intrusive than a decade or two ago, so ordinary individuals feel compelled to lay out their lives on a platter for their ‘friends’. The key issue is one of blurred boundaries. As a social networking site it works brilliantly. If you want access to people, ways to contact them and for people to contact you, it does the job perfectly. If you want to highlight a cause or find people who share your concerns or your passions, it is also just the job.
To my mind, either you use it is as a social networking site and you open up your friends list to anyone who wants to be in contact with you, much like a public listing in a directory, or you consider it a channel to share intimate information with your circle of friends. But many seem to try to do both. They open up their friends list to all and sundry and then post intimate information about themselves. It is hardly surprising that burglars have admitted using Facebook to case out potential burglaries! Nor that employers have fired people for information they divulged on such sites!
The problem is not with the tool but with what is done with it. Facebook, by the sheer number of people using it, currently at more than 300 million worldwide, is mighty powerful. It has accumulated in its databases the kind of information that would be the envy of the secret services of the former USSR!
The greatest worry, of course, if the potential for bullying. For the young it must feel very hard to cope with something that to a large extent strips you of your privacy. By making information available to such a wide circle at the click of a button, it can smear someone in an instant.
For fairly private people like me, Facebook is rather redundant, but for socialites it must be heaven. I can see why people love it, but I do worry. Is this the future of social interaction? Will we increasingly share important news through postings on websites rather than through spending time with people? Will future generations think that a friend is a name on a list rather than someone who has been there for you in real life?
Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in London. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org