Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Facebook Friends Going AWOL

About Face
Between 2006 and 2007 the social networking site, Facebook, went from being the 60th to the 7th most popular web site on the Internet but one year on there are signs that the Facebook bubble is bursting. A face to face conversation with about 90 of my 150 Facebook friends evoked powerful feelings about joining, staying and why many are going AWOL.

Showing Face
Many joined Facebook to see what all the fuss was about. Others joined when they received an invitation from a close friend, a remote acquaintance or an unknown person who seemed hell-bent on building their friendship base. Many in their mature years were drawn into Facebook by a son or a daughter and it seemed a way to keep in touch or appear ‘hip’.

About ten percent of my Facebook Friends received a welcome, posted their profile, looked around and have hardly been seen since. Even the initial surprise of becoming a ‘friend’ with one or two people did not tempt them to stay.

Another ten percent are ‘high users’ and are mainly teenagers or those in their twenties. They rely on Facebook for sending email and communicating regularly with a huge number of friends. In its original incarnation it was an online networking facility at Harvard University so it is not surprising that Facebook continues to be strong among students and an effective means of maintaining group cohesion and nurturing alumni associations.

A handful of my friends use Facebook as a means of flogging their business, their blog postings and the meetings of their organization. One friend in the blogging business has the highest number of friends at 1962 and still climbing, a CEO of a Social Justice network has 1371 friends (he hires a staff member to oversee the nurturing of his friends), while a leader of a training organization, when one of his friends asked on his ‘wall’, ‘Can anyone really have 795 friends?’ he declared, ‘I am a man of immense social capacity.’

The vast majority of my friends enjoyed an initial flurry of activity when their Facebook experience was a novelty, followed by an intense period of connecting and then a dramatic decline in interest and commitment. They still show their face and are usually reactive but they assert that Facebook is a time waster and they now choose to give precedence to activities in ‘the real world’.

In Your Face
While time pressure is the biggest reason for the widespread decline, considerable angst has also caused Facebook to fall from favor. Facebook users commonly feel bombarded with requests to play new games, add applications and join a cause (although controls are now provided to block certain applications and requests from specified friends). One friend said, “There’s only so much fun to be had by being a pirate-ninja-zombie-werewolf-slayer.” Another said, “I have no desire to throw virtual food or rank my friends.” One Aussie user said, “Virtual beer is not as nice as real beer.” When Facebook users quickly recognized that most of the applications were childish, inane and of little value, their frustration intensified with every request to try something new.

The exponential growth in new friends is flattering but new connections bring endless mail, a deluge of news and more crushing requests. The very success of Facebook’s ability to connect is leading not only to its growth but to its downfall.

While there is a welcome and establishment process that newcomers undergo, Facebook should create a positive way that allows people to leave, to offer a farewell, remove their profile and indicate any future contact details.

Loss of Face
Many Facebook users joined because they did not want to appear unfriendly. Furthermore, refusing the friendship of people that they did not know is difficult to negotiate. One person said they were “yet to find out the social consequences of declining an invitation to engage in such activities as a Traveler’s IQ Test. Will they still love me in the morning?” More serious rejection is experienced by people who are excommunicated from somebody’s Friends List.

Keeping Face
One serious concern involves issues of privacy. As the list of friends grows most users divulge less personal information. Some uncertainty exists about what comments are posted to one person and what gets broadcasted to all their friends. Someone described a storm over the posting of photographs from a staff party, without getting the permission of all people in the shots, some of whom appeared to be ‘letting their hair down’.

Face to Face
Voted as one of the most valuable applications is the ability to post photographs so it’s little wonder that Facebook is currently the most popular site on the Internet for photographs with 14 million photos being uploaded daily. Reflecting on this visual aid to friendship one person said that “seeing a photo is a potent reminder of people’s presence that it encourages me to make contact more than just plain email.”

The Search Function to find old friends was hailed with enthusiasm. While some testified to ongoing contact, most users said that after the exciting virtual reunion there was little sustained friendship that ensued.

Where most of one’s friends are on Facebook, as is often the case in student communities, the ability to organize a meeting or a party, advertise who is attending and post the apologies, is a great benefit.

With the combined email service, Status Update and photo posting, Facebook is highly popular among travelers and family members who are living abroad. The ability to inform friends with messages and pictures sent from a mobile phone or a Personal Organizer is an additional benefit.

The Status Update (what I am doing or thinking today in about 25 words) which comes as a News Feed is a major reason why people enjoy Facebook. This verbal snapshot helps them to ‘feel in touch’ with friends they do not see on a regular basis. One person likened this to his parents whose only contact with some friends was the sending of the annual Christmas card.

Facebook has faded for those nurturing friendships in their immediate circle but it is helping people stay ‘in touch’ with those on the fringe in a take it or leave it friendship which is all that many want or can manage.

Thanks to my Facebook Friends for taking time to respond and share valuable insights. If you think of anything further or wish to make a clarification or correction, do post a Comment.

Geoff Pound

Image: Facebook Profile Page.