Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

The concept of a friend on Facebook is (to say the least) elastic. At its loosest, it can mean someone who might be useful to know, but with whom you have never interacted. At the opposite extreme, it can mean an intimate, or someone with whom you regularly interact online. But, no matter how a Facebook friend is defined, unfriending someone is generally considered a serious step, and I’ve only done it three times.

The first time, I made the mistake of accepting a friendship invitation from a friend of a friend. A few days later, the friend of a friend started chatting with me and tried to interest me in what sounded like a pyramid scheme. I made an excuse to log off chat and instantly unfriended them.

The second time involved an acquaintance who indulges in yellow journalism. They are careless of their facts and their logic is slippery, but they expressed an admiration for my writing, and I thought that maybe if they were taken seriously by other writers, they might evolve into an effective journalist. But then they turned their tendencies on me without any warning or apology, and I decided I wasn’t about to mentor someone who wanted to tear me down in order to build their own reputation. That wasn’t what friendship was about, so far as I was concerned, so exit another Facebook friend.

The third time was more complicated. It involved someone I had known for years. A few years previously, we had quarreled, but they approached me on Facebook and, despite some qualms, I accepted their friendship invitation. I had always admired this person’s brains and talents, and I frankly hoped to get to know them – to become a friend in real life, as I expressed the hope to myself.

However, I had forgot that one of the reasons we had quarreled before was this person’s inability to keep up their side of a correspondence. From somewhere – probably a bad book on business management – they seemed to have got hold of the idea that online correspondence should be limited to two or three sentences. To make matters worse, what they did write was so stiff that it sounded cold and condescending – and I have never been able to endure being patronized. The tone killed all efforts to strike up a conversation, and I soon realized that the development of any actual friendship would require the effort put into the first six days of creation and geological units of time, neither of which I had to spare.

Even so, I might not have bothered unfriending under ordinary circumstances. But my wife was hospitalized and dying, and so was a relative of this person. I suggested (in effect) that we might give some mutual support, and received another cold reply, which indicated to me that I was just another part of their effort to compile the largest possible collection of Facebook friends.

Then my wife died. The alleged friend’s reaction? “That is so sad.”

Granted, their own relative had also died. Yet even the person’s own grief could not justify such a chilly reaction. There I was, facing one of the worst experiences anyone can face, and instead of any real sympathy, what did I get? An insincerity worthy of Dale Carnegie. Anyone else would have mustered a little empathy, being in a similar position.

“Sad?” I wanted to phone up and rant. “Rick and Ilsa’s goodbye at the end of Casablanca is sad. The farewells at the end of Lord of the Rings are sad. This is tragedy, you asshole!”

Instead, I unfriended, and – not wanting to appear a coward – sent a brief note saying that I had done so. I said that if they wanted to talk, I would, adding that they probably wouldn’t care for what I had so to say.

I heard nothing, so I knew I was doing the right thing.

Still, I admit that I regret this third and latest unfriending in a way that I never did the first two. But what choice, really, did I have? I have (and have had) friends of both sexes that have my back the way that I have theirs. I don’t need a hanger-on too egocentric to know what friendship is about.

Or do I make too much out of a word that, on Facebook, no longer retains its original meaning, except by chance?

Maybe. But all I know is that recently I am now much choosier about the friendship offers I accept.

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If Facebook has done anything, it has helped make users more aware of privacy issues on the Internet. Personally, though, the issue of privacy has always seemed plain enough.

Like many middle-aged people, I’m sometimes appalled by what the majority of people seem willing to disclose on the Internet. Many people seem to forget that they’re not just having a one-on-one conversation, but leaving a trace that anybody – or, at least on Facebook, dozens or hundreds, depending on their number of friends – can read. They disclose not only their plans for the night, but even the details of their sexual encounters and relationships.

In some cases, this disclosure may be given because the person giving it is a genuinely warm person. In other, the Tom Cruise Syndrome may be in full play – you know, the idea that, if you declare your emotions publicly enough or loudly enough or often enough, you and everyone else will come to believe it. Mostly, though, I have the impression that people just don’t think of the audience to which they’re broadcasting; I’ve noticed the same tendency to get lost in a private world with people talking on their phones in public. But, whatever the reason, I think the term “overshare” becomes relevant here.

By contrast, I am more cautious about what I disclose. I’ve been using the Internet since 1991, so I’ve had more time to think about such things than the average Internet user. Also, writing is a burlesque-like game of alternately revealing and concealing your person, so writing as I do for tens or hundreds of thousands on a regular basis tends to bring privacy issues into focus. Moreover, I have got myself into trouble with an indiscreet email or two. All of this experience makes me cautious about what I will say online, so much so that there are some topics on which I simply won’t express my opinion. You can ask me in person or maybe on the phone if you know me well, but some things I want to keep off the record.

I don’t mind my contact information being available, so long as spammers can’t get hold of it too easily. It was long ago scattered across the Internet anyway.

My personal rule is simple: I imagine that I am speaking what I write online at a crowded party. Before I post, I ask myself if I would be embarrassed if a sudden silence fell over the party and everybody could hear what I was saying. If the answer is yes, then I don’t post it. Everything’s really that simple.

When I talk about other people (especially those closest to me), I may adapt the rule: If a sudden silence fell over the party while I was talking about them, would they be embarrassed?. But, often, I want to quote someone or mention what they are doing or how they affect me. In these cases, I generally try to anonymize them, removing any reference that isn’t strictly necessary so that the person I am talking about will be hard for most of my audience to identify.

Such a policy isn’t completely convenient. It limits what I talk about online. Often, a story is diminished if I remove the references. Once or twice, people have also jumped to wild conclusions about me because of what I haven’t mentioned; for example, because I rarely mentioned my partner, some people have assumed that I am a loner or accused me of being gay.

But these problems are rare enough that I can live with them. Certainly, they’re less of a problem than leaving a trail of embarrassing comments or photos that can come back to haunt me.

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Like many people in the free software community, I feel vaguely guilty about using Facebook. Microsoft’s investment in the site makes me queasy, and Facebook’s privacy problems raise issues that are close to my heart. Moreover, I have no interest in games like Farmville or Mafia Wars (or, rather, I can guess all too clearly how obsessive I would be once I started), or sending virtual gifts, and I long ago exhausted the pleasure of taking meaningless quizzes. Instead, I use Facebook more as an address book with a chat channel attached to it.

You can see how I use the site through the breakdown of my list of friends. As I scan the list, most people on it fall clearly into one of eleven categories, although a few could be placed in several categories:

According to my quick tally:

  • 15% are First Nations artists, or relatives or spouses of first nations artists. The main reason I friended the artists was to see the photos of their work that they post, although some have become personal friends as well.
  • 5% are fellow writers and journalists in the computer field – usually ones who write largely about free and open source software.
  • 5% are editors, about two-thirds of which I interact with regularly and submit articles to at least once per month.
  • 12% are subject matter experts. Although some are friends, the main advantage of being connected to them on Facebook is that when I need a quote or an explanation, I can hop on line and chat quickly with them. This is easy to do, because most are logged in to Facebook during regular business hours in North America.
  • 6% are business experts I’ve met and often interviewed while writing articles. On the whole, they tend not to be on Facebook often, but Facebook is another way to reach them when necessary.
  • 29% are either members of the free software community whose expertise I might need in a story or else professionals who work in marketing, communication, technical writing, public relations, or some other field that I have dabbled in.
  • 20% are people with whom I went to school. Most of these are very light Facebook users and not accustomed to chat, so my interaction with most of them is limited largely to occasional remarks about each other’s status.
  • 4% are people in high-tech with whom I have worked in the past.
  • Less than 1% are friends who have nothing to do with work or my art interests.
  • Less than 1% are actual family members.
  • 1 person is dead (and I can’t quite bring myself to remove him)

I’ve rounded the numbers, so the total does not add up to 100%.

Even so, this breakdown gives an accurate picture of how I use Facebook. Overwhelming, for me Facebook is a tool for business and for my major pastime of studying Northwest Coast Art. That sounds like I don’t use it for socializing, but that would be deceptive, since I consider many people in these categories friends.

Apparently, though, it’s not enough that I should feel guilty about using Facebook. Now, I need to feel guilty for not using it for completely mindless purposes as well.

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For some reason, writers in late middle age feel compelled to denigrate Facebook. The Globe and Mail seems particularly insistent, and hardly a week goes by without at least one of its columnists going on at length about how shallow Facebook friendships are or how trivial the quizzes and games often are. I’ve always thought that such rants are part of the general complaint that the world has changed since the late middle-aged were young; although I agree that Facebook is superficial, I’ve found it a useful way to maintain some business and hobby contacts. But, recently, I have had direct experience of another reason to appreciate Facebook: as an organizing tool for social action.

My newfound appreciation started at the end of January, when I stopped by the Edzerza Gallery while on a wander to celebrate having finished my work for the month. There, I struck up a conversation with carver Morgan Green, who told me about the trouble she and her father and the rest of his apprentices were having over their use of the carving shed at the Museum of Northern British Columbia.
After listening, I spoke fifteen fateful words: “Why don’t you start a Facebook group? Facebook has got to be good for something.”

That night, Morgan started the group “Expression not oppression” and issued invitations to all her Facebook friends to join. Within twenty-four hours, the group had two hundred members. It now has over 900 members, including prominent Northwest Coast artists such as Lyle Campbell, Ron Telek, and Ya’ Ya, and has become the focus for the discontent that many among the northern first nations feel about the museum and its curator and for the lack of respect that even prominent native artists sometimes face from the dominant culture and its bureaucracy.

Looking at what has happened, I like to joke that now I know what the pebble feels like when it starts the avalanche.

Even that, of course, is too much credit for me to claim. Apart from a few emails of support and my previous blog entry on the subject, I have really done very little, and nothing somebody else might not have been done. The truth is, the success of the group has everything to do with the carvers involved and their friends and family, and next to nothing to do with me. And that’s how it should be; I’m more than content to be part of the supporting crowd and leave the speaking roles to more suitable people.

However, because I was a bit of a catalyst, I have been following the growth of the group more than I might have done otherwise. And it strikes me that any tool that can help organize a community as quickly as Facebook did has more value than you might expect. Ninety-nine percept of everything that happens on Facebook may be shallow, but observing the “Expression not oppression” group has convinced me that the remaining one percent is powerful and more than enough to justify the rest of the activity.

Really, the late middle-agers have got hold of the wrong perspective – instead of insisting on the triviality of Facebook, they should be having a closer look at how it can be used to organize people. To me, any tool that has such a positive effect deserves to be taken seriously, not dismissed because it’s new and different.

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