JUDG­ING JUDY

THE REAL REA­SON YOU CAN’T QUIT FACE­BOOK

In Flight Magazine - - TOTALLY TASTY - { TEXT: PHILIP SEARGEANT, SE­NIOR LEC­TURER IN AP­PLIED LIN­GUIS­TICS, THE OPEN UNI­VER­SITY & CARO­LINE TAGG, LEC­TURER IN AP­PLIED LIN­GUIS­TICS AND ENGLISH LAN­GUAGE, THE OPEN UNI­VER­SITY / WWW.THE­CON­VER­SA­TION.COM | IMAGES © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM}

FACE­BOOK RE­CENTLY AN­NOUNCED THAT IT NOW HAS OVER TWO BIL­LION MONTHLY USERS. THIS MAKES ITS “POP­U­LA­TION” LARGER THAN THAT OF CHINA, THE US, MEX­ICO AND JA­PAN COM­BINED. ITS POP­U­LAR­ITY, AND WITH IT THE IN­FLU­ENCE IT HAS IN SO­CI­ETY, IS BE­YOND DIS­PUTE. BUT FOR MANY, THE EX­PE­RI­ENCE OF AC­TU­ALLY US­ING THE SITE FLUC­TU­ATES SOME­WHERE BE­TWEEN THE AD­DIC­TIVE AND THE AN­NOY­ING. NEW RE­SEARCH SHOWS THAT THE REA­SON FOR THIS IS VERY SIM­PLE: IT’S ALL TO DO WITH OTHER PEO­PLE, AND HOW WE FEEL ABOUT THEM.

For Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­burg and his col­leagues, the ethos be­hind the site is straight­for­ward. It aims to “give peo­ple the power to build com­mu­nity and bring the world closer to­gether”. By of­fer­ing in­di­vid­u­als the chance to con­nect with friends and share mean­ing­ful con­tent, it aims to strengthen re­la­tion­ships and com­mu­nity ties.

The fact that this is a rather ide­al­is­tic pic­ture of so­ci­ety hasn’t pre­vented the site from flour­ish­ing. Yet ex­am­in­ing what peo­ple ac­tu­ally do on the site, how they in­ter­act with each other, and what they feel about the be­hav­iour of friends and ac­quain­tances, shows that the truth is rather more com­plex.

SILENT WATCH­ERS

We sur­veyed and se­lec­tively in­ter­viewed a net­work of over 100 Face­book users. Our find­ings show how we con­tinue to use the site and re­main con­nected to peo­ple through it even though they of­ten an­noy or of­fend us. But in­stead of chal­leng­ing them or sev­er­ing ties, we con­tinue to use Face­book to silently watch them – and per­haps even take plea­sure from judg­ing them.

In other words, Face­book re­flects the dy­nam­ics at the heart of all real hu­man re­la­tion­ships. Just as in their off­line life, peo­ple try to open up and bond with each other while si­mul­ta­ne­ously hav­ing to cope with the ev­ery­day fric­tions of friend­ship.

One of the most no­table things we found in our re­search was the high num­ber of peo­ple who said that they were fre­quently of­fended by what their friends posted.The sorts of things that caused of­fence ran the gamut from ex­trem­ist or strongly-held po­lit­i­cal opin­ions (racism, ho­mo­pho­bia, par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal views) to over­shar­ing of daily rou­tines and acts of (pos­si­bly in­ad­ver­tent) self-pro­mo­tion.

For ex­am­ple, one in­ter­vie­wee wrote of how she had “a par­tic­u­larly hard time with pro-gun posts”. “I re­ally, re­ally wish guns were sig­nif­i­cantly less ac­ces­si­ble and less glo­ri­fied in Amer­i­can cul­ture. Still, I don’t think Face­book is re­ally the place that peo­ple chose to lis­ten to op­pos­ing views, so I usu­ally ig­nore posts of that na­ture.”

At the other end of the spec­trum was this in­ter­vie­wee: “I wrote to a friend about how my two-year-old was count­ing to 40 and was say­ing the al­pha­bet in three lan­guages. This made a Face­book con­tact write pas­sive ag­gres­sively on her wall about over­achiev­ing par­ents who spend all their time brag­ging about their chil­dren. I felt the need to de-friend her af­ter that in­ci­dent.”

WHY DO WE PUT UP WITH THIS?

The rea­son th­ese re­ac­tions hap­pened so of­ten was due to var­i­ous fac­tors na­tive to the sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy that Face­book rep­re­sents. First, there’s the spe­cific type of di­ver­sity that ex­ists among peo­ple’s on­line net­works. That is, the di­ver­sity cre­ated by peo­ple from dif­fer­ent parts of your life be­ing brought to­gether in one space.

On Face­book, you write your mes­sage with­out know­ing who pre­cisely will read it, but in the knowl­edge that the likely au­di­ence will in­clude peo­ple from var­i­ous parts of your life who have a range of dif­fer­ent val­ues and be­liefs. In face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions you’re likely to talk to you fa­ther-in-law, work col­leagues or friends from pri­mary school in sep­a­rate con­texts, us­ing dif­fer­ent styles of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Whereas on Face­book they’ll all see the same side of you, as well as get­ting to see the opin­ions of those you as­so­ciate with.

This means that peo­ple are en­gag­ing in per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions in a much more pub­lic space than they did be­fore, and that the dif­fer­ent value sys­tems th­ese di­verse friends have can very eas­ily come into con­flict. But the na­ture of the ties peo­ple have on Face­book means that of­ten they can’t just break loose from peo­ple they find an­noy­ing or of­fen­sive in this way.

For ex­am­ple, if a work col­league or rel­a­tive of­fends you, there are likely to be rea­sons of duty or fa­mil­ial re­spon­si­bil­ity which means you won’t want to de-friend them. In­stead, peo­ple make dis­creet changes in their set­tings on the site to limit the views they find of­fen­sive from show­ing up in their feed, with­out pro­vok­ing out­ward shows of con­flict with peo­ple.

As one in­ter­vie­wee ex­plained: “I re­mem­ber de-friend­ing one per­son (friend of a friend) as she kept post­ing her po­lit­i­cal opin­ions that were the com­plete op­po­site of mine. It frus­trated me as I didn’t know her well enough to ‘bite’ and re­ply to her posts, equally, I didn’t want to voice it on a pub­lic fo­rum.”

None of the peo­ple in the study, how­ever, said that they’d re­duced their use of Face­book be­cause of the fre­quent of­fence they ex­pe­ri­enced from us­ing it. In­stead, we can spec­u­late, it’s this op­por­tu­nity to be slightly judge­men­tal about the be­hav­iour of your ac­quain­tances that proves one of the com­pelling draws of the plat­form.

Sim­i­lar to the “hate-watch­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence of view­ing tele­vi­sion pro­grammes you don’t like be­cause you en­joy mock­ing them, this can be seen as a mild form of “hate-read­ing”. Log­ging onto Face­book gives you the chance to be in­dig­nantly of­fended (or maybe just mildly piqued) by other peo­ple’s ill-in­formed views and idio­syn­cratic be­hav­iour.And there’s a sur­pris­ing amount of plea­sure in that.

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