A few years ago, I joined Facebook. Reluctantly.
The members of the band I was in at the time thought that social media was a good way to publicize our gigs. Everyone else in the band was already on Facebook, and I thought it would give the wrong impression if the bassist were the only one who was not. Up until that point, I didn’t see the value of it.
So I joined. But I had one condition.
I felt that if I had to be on Facebook–if it wasn’t my idea–then I would do it on my terms. And my terms were these: with a few exceptions, I would not initiate friending anyone; I would wait for them to friend me.
I thought it would look phony if, after having dismissed social media, I suddenly joined and started friending everyone I could think of. Also, and more importantly, I wanted to gauge the level of other’s interest in being connected to me. One way to do that was to wait and see.
And you know what? Very few people have friended me. The usual suspects have–I could have predicted with 95 percent confidence the small number of individuals who would friend me–but a surprising number have not. For example, there are some people with whom my wife is barely acquainted–but who I have known for years–who have friended her, but not me.
I have to wonder what that means. Does that say something about me, or about them?
I would like to blame Facebook’s automated “find your friends” feature, which mines your address book and friends everyone whom you may have, at some point in your life, listed an email address for.
But, more likely, it is that I have some fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of social media, because they are essentially the same rules that govern social interaction in general. It has something to do with how attractive you are, how talkative you are, and how comfortable you are with the medium. Things like intelligence and humor do not come across well on Facebook.
And if that feels like high school, it’s because…well…it is like high school. In a recent article in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior points out that research indicates that all our social skills–the ability to pick up on cues or fail to do so–we learn as adolescents. Quoting work by Gabriella Conti, she says ” ‘Adolescent popularity,…it’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to play the game. ” Or don’t.”
Underlying all of this is being able to effectively interact with people and make yourself interesting to others. This is a skill that is, for the most part, independent of media, although Facebook does amplify the extent to which one has mastered it, thus requiring the refinement of one’s social toolkit to avoid being annoying.
I’ve heard people say how connected they feel on Facebook, but these are people who were already connected in the real world. For me, Facebook has not upped my feeling of connection. Rather, it is one more avenue of communication that I suck at. Most days, instead of updating my status with some inane personal detail, I find myself thinking, “Why bother?” and “Who cares?”
The bottom line is that social media is little different from any other social situation. Those who understand the rules are rewarded, and those for whom the rules remain mysterious are marginalized or even penalized. I know of a number of people who’ve tried Facebook but have since deactivated their accounts. “It just didn’t work for me,” one guy told me.
I continue to use Facebook on occasion. Often I go more than a week without even logging in. Sometimes I wonder why I use it at all.