Monday, 30 June 2014

Facebook and Real Life

The problem with being a parent, doing a PhD and teaching is that there is little time for anything else. I just about manage the occasional shower and to consume meals at approximately the appropriate time but extra curricular writing has almost become a thing of the past. But recently I realised that the one place I do seem to be able to find the time to spend and write on a disturbingly regular basis (if only comments of a couple of sentences) is a virtual place: Facebook. 

Most of my friends have real jobs, where having Facebook up on your computer looks bad, whereas no one is keeping an eye on me except myself. I realised it had gradually sneaked in to occupy the place in my working day which used to be taken up by smoking: it felt necessary, productive and enjoyable and must be done at very regular intervals. In fact, it is none of these things and only serves to take up too much time and occupy my head when I should be thinking about useful things, or better still not thinking about anything: using my eyes and brain to engage with the world around me. As a result of the epiphany which was the realisation of how stressful Facebook was becoming, I edited it out of my life and I already feel much more relaxed. This has given me the opportunity to reflect on Facebook, what it is, what it tries to be, and how it may be starting to replace some aspects of the city which should not be replaced.

The primary reason (excuse) for my constant use was my membership of a number of parenting and other groups, on which fellow users asked for advice and discussed problems and triumphs. These groups come in several sorts: common interest groups (eg. attachment parenting, controlled crying etc.); geographical groups (eg. Epping mums and dads, South East London Parents) and groups which offer a service (selling and swapping particular kinds of niche goods like baby slings and reusable nappies). 

The niche goods groups are particularly interesting, because a marketplace and a value is established for second hand items which in another forum (eg. eBay, or second hand/charity shops) would be very low value. For example, woven wraps for carrying babies. To the uninitiated these look like big shawls, but are made of special strong stuff for carrying babies and toddlers. They sell for a minimum of about £50, up to several hundreds, depending on material and rarity value/desirability of the pattern - which seems a ludicrous price for what they are. However, because a marketplace for interested individuals is established virtually the value is established and maintained. In times gone by a specialist publication might have served this role, but the audience would have been finite - unlike the Facebook audience. Although cost of postage is a factor so groups tend to have national borders, the market within one country is almost boundless. This, for some niche goods, has replaced eBay because the selling group also becomes a social group, with members conversing and getting to know one another, repeatedly selling and reselling as a form of social interaction - as the virtual community is made concrete through the postal service, with packages flying across the country. 

The most problematic in my personal experience are the shared interest groups, which bare no relation to geographical boundaries or real life exchange. On the face of it the shared interest seems wholesome, helpful and supportive. However, some key differences between this online community and a real life community can make it dysfunctional, and not fit for purpose. First, the people have no real commitment to one another's welfare, and even if online 'friendships' (ie. familiarity) develop, real help and favours with childcare etc. cannot be exchanged because of physical distance between people. Second, because it is a forum where lonely people can have semi-imaginary friendships, it prevents them from seeking help in the real world. On occasion help can be provided in that members recommend local support services to one another (such as children's centres and breastfeeding groups), but these are geographically based physical services which exist in the real world. For me, this lack of commitment was difficult and confusing, for although I don't really know these people, and have no investment in their lives or futures, their thoughts and problems were beginning to occupy a significant part of my day. Frugal Homemaking Tips was a place where I could read and worry about other people's terrible debt; VBAC support allowed me to incessantly relive my own birth experiences and choices through reading graphic descriptions of other peoples'. 

Facebook is special, a particular, insidious and addictive medium. it's not the same as people writing stories on a website about things, a website is not delivered directly to your phone in regular bite sized chunks. Because of the way Facebook and smartphones work together it feeds the addiction - a constant diet if snippets of other peoples' problems.

Using Facebook in this way is potentially both stressful and time consuming in that it uses the human faculty, evolved in tribes of 150 or so, to really deeply give a shit about people we know, and want to altruistically help them out and support them. This works well when the online community is geographically based, or based on exchange of goods (or, as I used Facebook prior to joining groups, based on a group of real life friends). It works much less well when it tries to replace geographical commonality with commonality based on other shared factors. Imaginary communities need to be based in geographical reality, they need to represent and be an extension of real or potentially real physical locations.

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