The author shares some insights on the impact of social networking on relationships in the Age of Facebook.
Facebook is everywhere. I remember back in the mid-1990s, businesses were discovering the potential of the Internet. The battle between Microsoft and Netscape was on in terms of who would become the dominant browser on the nascent World Wide Web. As more people established themselves on-line, even with the slow dial-up speeds of that time, corporations and entrepreneurs large and small recognized that global communication had the potential to spread the word about their brand names and improve the bottom line. It’s happening all over again, but it’s taking place within the world of Facebook, the social network developed by Mark Zuckerberg earlier in this decade. While his creation was developed more for individual interaction between people of common interests, businesses and corporations see that having a Facebook page of their own taps into an ever-growing demographic of web users.
Facebook started out as a way for late-teens and college-age people to connect, get dates, and get to know each other in a virtual environment. It has grown to become a medium of information exchange across diverse groups within itself. Families use Facebook to share family photos, inform far-flung members of events such as births, weddings, and graduations, and keep those who would normally be out of the loop in the loop. Organizations of every stripe now have their own Facebook pages, from church youth groups to addiction support groups. Programmers are able to develop applications for Facebook that allow users to engage in diverse activities such as on-line dating to developing virtual worlds called “Mafia Wars” and “Farmville.” People who love on-line games have many venues on Facebook within which they can hone their skills, whether they enjoy knowledge-based games such as GeoChallenge or skills-based games such as Boggle. Facebook provides an environment in which these interests can be pursued and it offers a ready-made pool of users with like minded-interests. Every media outlet, from movies to TV stations, has its own Facebook page, and these media outlets encourage their viewers to connect to their Facebook iterations and chat or post to their walls. The fact that media outlets have their own on-line forums within Facebook reflects a merger of the two media with TV and the on-line world increasingly interacting with each other.
Facebook users have to be careful, though, that their exhibitionism does not lead to inadvisable self-disclosure or violations of privacy. The Human Resources department of hiring organizations from school systems to corporations has demanded that prospective employees reveal their Facebook pages to see if any compromising images or posts can be seen. The Facebook profile has become part of the hiring process, and professional judgment is assessed by decision-makers once they determine what’s on the profile. Teachers have the opportunity to use Facebook as a socially-based Blackboard program, but it is easy to cross the line and seem like a “creeper” if a male teacher initiates contact with a teenage female Facebook friend. School systems may or may not have written or unwritten policies regarding the actions of their teachers vis-a-vis their students. Either way, professional judgment is tested, and where is it tested, the normal curve of probability has it that somewhere, someone will fail.
The same is true for the effect of Facebook on non-marital and marital relationships. Statistics are revealing how many marriages are falling prey to “Facebook adultery,” where spouses are exchanging racy messages, images and chat with Facebook members with whom they are not married or to who they are not devoted. More and more divorces are finding the word Facebook in their court documents as a result of bad decisions while on-line at the computer. It’s not that Facebook was the cause of these failed marriages and relationships; rather, Facebook abuse becomes a symptom of that which is already tearing these couples apart.
Facebook is a powerful communication tool for individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments. The election of Barack Obama in 2008, in large part, owes itself to the savvy use of social media and the mobilization of an underutilized demographic in American politics: the 18-25 year old voter. But like any powerful social aphrodisiac, the Internet has addictive qualities, and Facebook is the crack cocaine of Internet addicts. The ego is so easily stroked, the spotlight so easily turned on oneself, that the societal narcissism now gripping our nation and even our global society can result in a world of Facebook addicts. When it’s easier to fire up the laptop and chat on-line than it is to go to the local watering hole to see who is out, and still get the same ego gratification, then we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say “time to power down and get outside.”