Did you give something up for Lent this year? This is that time of year when many Christians choose to give up something in order to sharpen their attention in preparation for Easter. I’ve observed this tradition haphazardly in the past, but this year I decided to experiment with giving up something that I have lately been feeling a little to addicted to: Facebook.
I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook lately. Google’s Chrome web browser shows you a list of your most-visited web sites when you open a new tab, and Facebook has been at the top of that list for some time now. Like many people, I tend to check Facebook several times a day, whenever I’m feeling bored or have a little time to kill. I enjoy being able to keep up on the lives of my friends, many of whom are scattered far away from my little corner of the world. I love reading their pithy comments, seeing pictures of their kids, reading what they found interesting, and laughing along with them at the never-ending stream of funny pictures that quickly spread through the social network.
But I’ve noticed over the years that the way I use Facebook has changed a few times. When I first joined in 2007, I mostly used it to reconnect with old college and high school friends. I would run across someone I used to know, friend them, and then exchange a few private messages to find out how their life turned out.
That worked well for a while, but then I had to figure out what to post on my own profile. Early posts were scans of old photos and bad attempts at being witty, but I soon settled into posting what I was making for dinner that night, and providing the corresponding recipe as a note. My profile quickly became a sort of cookbook, and some of my friends started to reciprocate.
I eventually ran out of recipes, however, and as I became friends with more and more people from various peripheral areas of my life, I began to pay attention to how my posts would make me look to these people who were really more like acquaintances or work colleagues than personal friends. In our social lives, we tend to project slightly different versions of ourselves to different groups, wearing costumes and projecting personalities that allow us to fit better into those contexts. The same is true on Facebook, which is why they’ve been trying to make it easier to group your friends and post some things to one group, but not to others. But it’s still way too easy to make a mistake and post something you’d rather not share with that prospective employer or those highly-conservative relatives.
Since Facebook’s grouping features have been fairly difficult to use so far (this is one area that Google+ really did much better), I chose instead to restrict my posts to only those things that I felt comfortable sharing with everyone. Now I tend to share only news articles that I found particularly interesting (and not too controversial), and links to my own blog posts.
When I reflect on all of this, I see something interesting. Through my usage, I’ve made Facebook into three different kinds of tools: a global directory for reconnection; a social recipe exchange; and a mechanism for shameless self-promotion. When I look at what my friends tend to post, I see even more distinct kinds of use: asking for advice; recruiting volunteers; communicating with students; organizing events and reunions; and providing space for dialog about a current issues (though that last one rarely seems to go well).
Notice that all of these patterns of use go beyond the shallow forms of sharing and socializing that critics of Facebook assume is the only possible use of the service. While it is true that Facebook might encourage its customers to use the service in a particular sort of way, it does not completely determine how any particular person might use it. The distinction is important. It is the difference between thinking of technologies as unstoppable forces that have one-way impacts on culture, and thinking of them as having a certain degree of “interpretive flexibility.” If that flexibility exists, humans are surprisingly good at taking advantage of it, bending the technology towards their own values, desires, and intentions.
Admittedly, some artifacts have very few possible patterns of use: atomic weapons and birth control pills are interesting examples. Although their underlying techniques might be used for multiple purposes, these finished artifacts almost dictate their own usage, and carry with them a particular set of values. Atomic weapons can be used to deter or attack, but they cannot reasonably be used for demolition or tunneling like dynamite can. And lest we not forget, dynamite is also a really effective tool for fishing!
So how do you use Facebook? Have you found ways to use it that go beyond sharing and socializing?