How Friendly Is Facebook?

By BILL BONVIE | Apr 26, 2017

Just when some people were writing it off as a fast-fading fad, Facebook has been forced into the forefront of our collective consciousness, first by being identified as the chief forum for the dissemination of fake news during a contentious election campaign, and then by enabling a psychopath to get right “in our faces” while engaged in committing a horrific and senseless crime.

Here’s something I couldn’t help wondering in regard to the latter episode, however. When now-deceased “Facebook killer” Steve Stephens first made his Facebook friends eyewitnesses to his act of gunning down a stranger on the street via the medium’s “live streaming” capability, did any of them react with one of the corresponding “emoticons”?

What has been reported is that the video of the actual murder was posted on his page for more than 1½ hours before anyone bothered reporting it (although a subsequent “confession” video he posted was reported within a few minutes), and removed by Facebook 23 minutes later. So there would have been plenty of opportunity for online onlookers to have reacted, as some actually did back in January when a gang of four men and women live-streamed their attack on a developmentally disabled young man on Facebook.

It’s possible, of course, that just as people are ready to believe phony political postings on Facebook, they might think actual crimes-in-progress there are staged or practical jokes. But here’s a question I’d like to pose: Is Facebook inadvertently encouraging such atrocious acts by providing a personal platform to disturbed individuals who may be committing them for the sole purpose of getting attention?

While that may be a subject worthy of examination by experts, what they’ve been busy looking at instead are the effects Facebook use is having on those of us within the supposedly normal personality spectrum. And what they claimed to have discovered, in a study just published by Oxford University Press, is that based on a two-year survey of over 5,200 American adults, it’s actually causing many of them considerable angst and loss of self-esteem, and maybe even helping make some folks fatter.

“Most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year,” the study’s authors, Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis, wrote in Harvard Business Review. “We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

But other than the fact that it might have something to do with the amount of time one spends accessing the medium, and noting that “online social interactions are no substitute for the real thing,” the researchers admitted they “cannot definitely say” what it is about Facebook that causes such negative vibes.

But as a longtime and frequent Facebook user, I believe I can. Facebook, in essence, is only for those willing to face up to how unpopular exposing themselves in this manner might make them feel.

By that, I mean that if you have a fragile ego, you might want to proceed with extreme caution before subjecting it to the belittling and sometimes bruising business of “friending” people on this highly competitive medium. For make no mistake, Facebook is first and foremost a popularity contest, and always has been since its intrigue-infused Ivy League innovation that was so well depicted in the movie The Social Network.

Once on Facebook, you are immediately made aware of how you rate in terms of the sheer volume of your so-called friendships, and how many more of them some of the people you regularly relate to will have racked up. Whereas you might have accumulated a few dozen, or perhaps a few hundred, there are always those outgoing individuals who have somehow managed to cultivate hundreds or even thousands more. And while they may not be intentionally trying to show you up, you can’t help but realize just how far they’ve surpassed you in making themselves well liked and widely acknowledged. 

But it’s not just in your ability to win friends that Facebook can lower your feeling of self-confidence, but also in how good you are at influencing people. That’s something you can measure not just in terms of the amount of “likes” your postings get (which are often perfunctory), but in the number of comments they elicit and conversations they inspire. And if something you considered particularly profound, important or clever should fail to even get a rise out of anyone –especially when contrasted with the responses to superficial things put up by friends – that can really make you feel like you’ve been given a collective cold shoulder.

Then, too, if you’re down on your luck, or not especially satisfied with your situation in life, friends whose postings reflect how well they’re doing or how happy, exciting and idyllic their lives are – even if they’re merely putting the best face on far less fortuitous circumstances – can put you even further into a funk. (Not that there aren’t also a lot of Facebook folks who use the medium to vent their frustrations or personal ordeals they’ve recently suffered, and thus help mitigate any misery you might be feeling by sharing theirs.)   

Even worse, however, is the sting of being “unfriended.” While this is a most unfriendly act I make a point of engaging in only when I feel someone has gone beyond the pale of civility (and I can only think of one occasion when that occurred), it has happened to me a number of times. I assume the “unfriending” was because some item or comment I posted ran afoul of someone’s politics, since I try not to say anything personally offensive, even when I might like to. Of course, one can always refrain from posting anything of a controversial nature, but I could no more do so on Facebook than in my commentary writing.

And while I usually try to shrug off such affronts by reminding myself that I don’t need people like that in my life, I must admit there have been times when I was a bit bothered by it. This was especially the case when I didn’t know who it was I’d been unfriended by, but only that my list of “friends” had decreased by one.

Those are the kinds of things that might well put someone with a shaky sense of self-worth into a state of dejection, and which probably account for the psychological and physical effects of Facebook that were reported but not quite understood by those two researchers.

But if you don’t suffer from insecurity or feelings of inadequacy, using Facebook can do wonders to expand your circle of actual friends. It can help you find former classmates or colleagues you’d lost touch with and to get to know people, often friends of friends, with whom you might find you have a lot in common.

So while it might not substitute for the “real thing” where social interactions are concerned, it can quite conceivably lead to a lot more of them. And it can also serve as a great channel of regular communication with actual friends (meaning those you know off line) who might live too far away to visit, or whom you might not have the chance to get together with that often.

But just in case one of the people you meet on Facebook turns out to be another Steve Stephens, it might be much better to relate to that person from the relative safety of your computer screen or smartphone than in an actual face-to-face encounter.

Bill Bonvie of Little Egg Harbor is the author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders and co-author of the recently released Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them.



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