I make no qualms about how much I love Twitter (you can follow me at @halophoenix), even love Plurk (I’m halophoenix there also), but hate Facebook with a passion. Why? It’s all about the way you use your social networks – or the way your social networks use you.
This is also the answer to a question a friend of mine (a friend in more ways than social networking, which is worthwhile to point out) put to her Livejournal followers a few weeks back. She asked, in a nutshell, whether the proliferation of social networks and ways to connect and communicate with people like Facebook and Twitter and even long-form blogging and community blogging like Livejournal is a way for people to share their lives with people, connect with friends and loved ones that they truly want to stay in touch with, or whether it’s little more than a new, technologically-based way for people to stroke their own egos and put on a “my life is better than yours” show for their so-called friends to see.
The answer really is that it’s both, and which one you experience depends highly on you and the type of community you decide to keep on all of those services. While I can’t claim that it’s entirely dependent on you and that you have complete control over what your social networks look like, you do have control over who you let into your social circles and who you exclude: who gets in behind the velvet rope and who doesn’t.
Full disclosure (and some personal examples) behind the jump.
choose and build healthy communities
It’s for this very reason that if at all possible, I channel my coworkers away from my Facebook account and over to my LinkedIn profile. For example, I’m highly selective about who I allow to be my “friend” at Plurk – as in, who I follow back and who’s allowed to see my private plurks, but at Twitter I’m much more lenient about who I follow and who I allow to follow me, mostly because I use the two networks very differently.
Plurk, for me, is home to a relatively tightly knit group of friends who know me very personally – if you’re not in that group or haven’t shown yourself willing to interact with me personally, I’m not likely to let you in that circle. On Twitter on the other hand, I post with some personal posts but also use the service as a self-promotional tool to showcase my posts (like this one), the blogs I write for, and build connections and networks with other people who have similar interests as I do (like World of Warcraft, for example – I know a ton of WoW players on Twitter).
The difference? My Plurk friends have seen me at my saddest, and most upset, hidden behind friends-only plurks. Those are things I would never say at Twitter, even if I had the option to restrict their view only to people who follow me and I follow in return.
is it “reconnecting” or is it “keeping up with the Joneses?”
Facebook is another great example – Facebook is an example of a social network that personally I’ve let run kind of rampant: a number of people I used to know in high school have found me and added me as friends, which is completely fine, but none of them have shown any indication that they plan to interact with me in any meaningful way. Now I don’t think they’re bolstering their friends list just to show off their beautiful lives and beautiful children (because some of them certainly aren’t), but I think that there’s a subconscious element of that along with a real desire to feel connected to people, even if you used to be connected to them and you aren’t any longer.
Everyone who’s out of high-school is familiar with the whole “glory days” mentality, where people look nostalgically back on their high-school days as the best days of their lives, never to be topped – where they were their most innocent, most beautiful, and most well-liked. Part of that connection is a desire to reconnect with people who liked them at that time, and part of it is so see how much better or worse you are after all that time.
This mentality has been around since the first high-school reunion, and the ego-stroking “my life is better, I drive a better care, have a bigger house, or married a prettier person” is as old as the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” None of it is particularly new, and it’s remarkably difficult to avoid falling into the trap of trying to keep up with people you haven’t spoken to in easily 10 years.
so what is “social networking” for, anyway?
So in the end, yes – social networks are about ego-stroking. Yes, they’re also about reconnecting with people you may have lost touch with and want to be closer to again. Yes, they’re also depressing – because just as easily as you can build up a network of people, you can easily find yourself spending hours comparing your life against those of your peer group and, for example, finding yourself angry if you’ve been trying to have kids and all you see are high-school classmates with babies, or depressed when you see all of your former crushes are married and you’re single, or saddened when you’ve just been laid off and everyone’s talking about their high-paying jobs, or jealous when one of your classmates turned out to be en executive at a multi-million dollar company.
The difference, and the crux, comes in when you analyze those friends to determine whether they’re really friends, or just acquaintances looking to add numbers to a friends list. Then ask yourself whether you’re adding someone because you truly care about them, want to reconnect with them, or you’re just looking to beef up your friends list. The question I try to go by is: “I already wouldn’t mind this person seeing when I’m happy…but would I want this person to see me when I’m sad, lonely, or depressed?”
Additionally, making that decision – especially if your network is already set up and you’re looking to prune it, requires courage – the courage to say no to people who want to add you to their friends lists, the courage to remove people from your existing friends lists, and the courage to face whatever drama may come out of those decisions. You have to be ready to hold your ground, or even set up dummy profiles or dummy networks where you direct those people.
take control: the rewards are worth it
The question of whether your social networks become farms where you just add more and more random people that you pepper with shallow updates about your life and what you drive or what you’ve eaten for dinner – or whether they become close knit circles of true friends you feel comfortable sharing the ups and downs of your life with is largely up to you.
If you care for those people, they’ll likely respond in kind, and they’ll interact with you. If they’re the type to blather on about their meals and their travel plans, you’ll either drop them out of boredom and due to the fact that they don’t interact with you or you’ll leave them on because you care for them so much. In the end, you’ll wind up with digital communities that defy the notion that you “can’t have real friends on the internet,” full of people who care for you as much as you care for them – people who will respond when you post, miss you when you don’t, and read what you write.