Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why I'm Not Taking a Vacation from Facebook

The internet does not seem to like Facebook these days. Studies are coming out (for instance, this PLOS ONE study) suggesting that Facebook decreases happiness in young adults. In solidarity with the teenagers, Kayak founder Paul English is taking a vacation from it the month of October.

This is too bad. I don't hate social media. Like any of you I also like going into the mountains, throwing my phone into a lake, and bonding over shared processing of primal angst. But I wouldn't be the most happy doing only that. I thrive on being connected to hundreds of people at once. And you might, too.

I have always loved the internet for making this possible. As a kid with diverse interests and not that many people to talk to about them, the internet was a way for me to have the conversations I wanted to have. I have had an e-mail account since 1995. I may have read every page on the internet about the USA women's gymnastics team during the 1996 Olympics. I got a lot of flak for running my own GeoCities website about tamagotchis--complete with pop-ups and frames--in middle school. During my teenage years, when I became only slightly cooler, my social life consisted mostly, to my mother's chagrin, of spending my evenings with at least five AOL Instant Messenger chat windows open while "doing my homework." I talked to friends from my school, friends from other schools, friends I met at summer camp, and friends of friends who were interesting to talk to. If only there were a way for me to do this more efficiently...

When Facebook first came out, I was excited that everyone else could join me in having an active online life. As part of the first Harvard class ('08) to have Facebook accounts before arriving on campus, we all spent the later parts of our summers stalking our soon-to-be classmates. By the first week of freshman year, it was rare to come across someone who had not already established, through judging self-manufactured personas on Facebook, who was hot, who was not, and who was planning to take way too many classes. And sure, at times it was a bit overwhelming to be able to browse just how much smarter, better-looking, and popular other people seemed to be. But that's college. Insecurity is inevitable, especially on a campus where it seems like every other person is jumping to tell you how early they got up, how many miles they ran, or how smart their boyfriend was. And you learn to calibrate for the "Facebook gap:" people are probably adding a couple of inches to their height, taking a few pounds of their weight, and lying about their age... oh wait, that's online dating.

Even in the beginning, Facebook was useful for facilitating deeper connections. In late August before our freshman year, one of the Harvard websites had a glitch that allowed us to see our room assignments, which normally would not be available until we arrived on campus. News of this glitch spread through the mailing list for the incoming class (another useful virtual community) and many of us posted our room assignments to Facebook. This is how four of my five freshman roommates and I found each other and began corresponding. By the time we had gotten to school, we already knew where the others were from, what our backgrounds and habits were like, and what our hopes and dreams were for our freshman year. This helped us establish a rapport--as well as real memories we still refer back to--before we were able to meet in person. It may not be a coincidence that despite being quite different on the surface, the four of the five of us continued living together for the rest of college.

Social media, by supporting the broadcast-and-see-what-comes-back method of social interaction, has enriched my life in many ways over the years. When I was younger and less busy, I would announce on Facebook whenever I was going to be in a different city so I could meet up with whichever friends happened to be there at the time. One time, Facebook helped me reconnect with a Korean-American friend I had not seen since we met at art camp in high school who was randomly teaching English in my Chinese hometown. Another time, my Facebook-location-announcement scheme facilitated a San Francisco hang-out with a childhood friend who introduced me to a friend who introduced me to a friend--via Facebook--who ended up showing my friend and me a fun evening in Barcelona. By giving me a forum for announcing my intentions to the world, Facebook has made it easy for the world to help me achieve what I want, whether it is having a discussion about some topic or acquiring some physical object. Facebook has given me all sorts of things: product and app recommendations (I learned about InstaPaper through Facebook), link suggestions, and even roommate invitations.

Because of how easy it makes it to access interesting information, social media has come to dominate my media consumption. For the media diary we were supposed to keep for a class last semester on the news ecosystem, I discovered that I spent 78.6 hours in conversations and it was my primary form of media consumption. (I had a pretty insane spreadsheet for tracking this...) Of my conversations, 27.6% occurred on social media. One could wonder whether I am spending my time gossiping when I could be reading the news, by let me convince you that this is not the case. On Facebook and Twitter, I like to follow people (for instance, Arianna Huffington) and organizations (for instance, Forbes Tech News) who post informative pieces. I also actively unfollow people who flood my stream with posts I don't care about. I have recently also begun following Facebook pages that provide a steady stream of positive quotes, for instance Positivity. Social media has made it much easier to do two of my favorite things: read about the world and have conversations about what I read.

You might ask whether this time I am spending on Facebook is taking time away from forming genuine connections. I don't think so. Much of the time I spend on Facebook is time I would otherwise use for working or reading, activities that are not particularly social. If I weren't having a conversation on social media, I would likely not be having a conversation at all--in-person conversations during work breaks take far higher levels of coordination and serendipity than the asynchrony of social media requires. For me, taking a break to go on Facebook or Twitter is like walking down a hallway full of exactly whom I want to see. For some kinds of work, it's also nice to have Facebook providing a warm background buzz. Of course it's good to have one-on-one conversations, but sometimes it's nice to be able to go to a coffee shop or party and experience human interaction secondhand. And just as it's not the best idea to do all of your work in the busiest coffee shop in town, you probably do not want to be constantly connected to all 3000 of your best Facebook friends.

So sure, if you are a misanthrope or agoraphobe it's probably best to stay off, but social media does not have to be bad. It may take some establishment of good practices, but what worthwhile activity doesn't?