Blog Post

Virtual Sociality on Facebook

My first day on Facebook (I think it was back in September or so) felt creepy. (See, "Kinda Creepy on Facebook").  I kept running into postings by students, young relatives, and others who clearly were not writing entries for their prof/adviser/aunt/boss to see. Now that I have a network of friends, I rarely stray off my own page. Notifications about my friends' Facebook life come directly into my Facebook inbox. They never even intrude into my daily work-full email life. The easy sociality is terrific, like wandering into some Old School Chicago tavern after work, a habit of sociality that requires public transportation, neighborhoods, the contingencies of daily working and walking to and from work and home. Friendship en route. You pop in. See what's up. Tip one back. Then you make it the rest of the way home, cheered by the brief contact with whomever happened to be there in whatever mood. Facebook feels a bit like that in its combination of ritual, control, and accident, the formal conventions of what gets expressed in this semi-public space and what does not. I especially like it that posts about birthdays (I never remember birthdays) come right into my "notifications" when I log on. I click once, and send the b-day Facebook friend a quick message and often I hear back, sometimes with a photo or an anecdote. Unlike much of my public internet life, with its contingencies of depressing political news--war or deceit or treachery or outright villany--my Facebook life is filled with friends, most of whom I wish I had more f2f with but, in a pinch, a virtual notice about this or that trip, or this thought for the day, or that movie preference or great book, well, it feels good. My friend MAN is reading books about James Brown, I see. I'm ordering one of those today for myself. If I ran into him in the hallway, we probably would end up talking about something happening at the U and wouldn't even get to the "what are you reading and loving now" question. The whole thing makes me happy. Old-school value, old-school happiness: bowling and, thank you, not alone. What about activism, you say? On Facebook, I can join whatever activist groups I want, be as connected to the world as I want to be. And then stop. If I want. For a while, I was on several such groups and then I realized I preferred Facebook Lite. Facebook makes up a tiny, luxuriant part of my day--not a guilty pleasure at all, just a pleasure. By the way, I'm writing this particular blog entry today partly because I've been hanging out lately with friends who are not on Facebook and who are trying to understand it as a phenomenon. It's easy to think of Facebook in the ways the media writes about, a place for picking up and hooking up, a place for trashing, a place for hazing and harassing, for abusing and threatening, and even (from a Japanese visitor) a place where people who want to commit suicide can find one another and arrange to commit actual suicides together. Of course virtual sociality can become all of the scary things one can find in actual face-to-face sociality. Because it's online, doesn't mean it isn't connected to real life. When one friend asked me why I like it, I had to think about it for a while. That's a good question, a fair question. "It makes me happy," I finally decided, an odd conclusion, perhaps, for an intellectual for whom "happiness" is supposed to be suspect. Of course, I can deconstruct the experience of virtual sociality as well as anyone . . . but I don't want to, really. I'm enjoying it too much. How one uses Facebook is as personal, cultural, collective, and overdetermined as any other form of sociality, and, like other forms of sociality, is viewed, public, and therefore subject to implied rules of public access and scrutiny. That Chicago tavern again. My intermittent check-in to the Facebook page is a way of staying connected with those people I care about who also happen to be on Facebook. The (contingent) neighborhood tavern syndrome means I know some but not all of the people I'm likely to run into, which, in itself, places constraints on the forms of expression I and others use. The communication isn't perfunctory but neither is it wildly and uninhibitedly revealing or self-expressive. But I don't think it is a hiding from intimacy, as some social commentators say. For me, right now, my preliminary report at this very early stage of Facebook membership is that it's a virtual intimacy that I prize like my morning dose of excellent, non-exploitative, sustainable, organic Sumatran coffee. A ritual that perks the rest of my day. I spend a few moments on Facebook and then I return to my undisclosed (fantasy) location in the Bahamas, my official place of Facebook residency for my leave year.



I found myself nodding in agreement with your depiction of your intermittent 'tavern' stop of intimacy on your Facebook profile, but have to say, I'm not the least bit wild about the new 'opt-out' default controls of this busybody beacon that flags friends re: where you've surfed, shopped, or spent...WAY too invasive putting the controls in the hands of marketers and the onus on users to 'opt-out' rather than 'opt-in and share by choice' (by far my preference)

I just posted a ton of embedded links on the controversy (clearly Facebook didn't learn their lesson in '06 when they auto-pinged info widely to friends w/out asking) therefore, I have just officially joined the "Facebook Don't Invade My Privacy" group of virtual friends.

Here's the article I just wrote on Shaping Youth that tells how to REMOVE the beacon, as well as a round-up of some of the recent press and brouhaha. It's titled, "Facebook's peepin' is creepin' me out"

I'd like to think I can follow these steps to set my privacy controls to eliminate my concerns and get back to the 'friendly tavern' fuzzies...

But right now I've got a hefty dose of obstinance and huff pushing back at Facebook's arrogance, setting default decisions that work in advertiser's favor, not the greater good of John Q. Public. Bleh.

Might have to shift to a new tavern. Cheers...


Mechelle de Craene has posted several important articles and opinions about teachers and students posting on MySpace and Facebook, including recent injunctions from the Ohio teachers union advising that faculty members not use these sites. I urge you to read these excellent admonitions on HASTAC on Ning.


Thank you so much for this post and alerting me to Beacon. I'd read about this but hadn't realized it was alive and well again. Your blog posting is excellent and I ended up signing the petition to remove Beacon and will remove it frm my box. I am going to reblog your comment so that it shows up on the HASTAC Homepage, it is so important. There is an important line between convenience (I love the birthday reminders) and surveillance (what I buy, who I support). I agree completely with Cory Doctorow that we are raising a generation of kids who do not understand that distinction because, since 911, we have totally eroded it in every way and called that erosion "safety." It is dangerous for everyone, but especially for young people who do not understand that there was a "before" where privacy was protected. My thanks for this excellent column and for your website.