THE BLOG
06/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

Facebook Friends: Reader Reactions

What makes Facebook such a lightning rod for reaction? My article last week on Facebook Friends unearthed quite an array of responses, from those agreeing, to those who think I am the Luddite's Luddite.

People responded from the UK, various parts of the EU, Australia and all across North America. The responses ranged from civil to vulgar; some were thoughtful arguments, some asked for greater depth, and some were somewhere between ignorant and ill informed.

Even though I wrote that this is just the start of a series, some reacted as though a travesty of justice had taken place. Some are so steeped in the internet world of SMS, texting, and abbreviated messages that an engaged conversation seems impossible.

Last week, I said we would be looking at communication in more depth as the series unfolds. For now, please allow me the latitude to say that communication is one of those massively misunderstood terms, one that can mean anything from the sharing of minor bits of information to one of complex substance and meaning.

Additional context for this series of articles can be found in an earlier post about the difference between what people often pursue in life (Symbols vs. Experience). You may also find my post about communication to be useful.

Some reader perspectives:

Scott from NYC put it most succinctly: The quick answer on Facebook or any social media platform is that they are tools that you can use well, or poorly. The question isn't about Facebook, it's about how people use it and what they hope to experience as a result.

Indeed, as with any tool, Facebook can be used well, and it can misused in many ways as well. A useful and insightful lens through which to view the discussion on Facebook and how people use it might come from the psychologist, Abraham Maslow who wrote: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see all problems as nails. In a similar but more useful vein, he is also quoted as saying: He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.

What is the experience that you are looking for in your FB communications? The more clear you are on the outcome you are seeking, the more skillfully you can choose which hammer to use.

From the several hundred comments and email messages I have received, it would appear that some of the most popular ways people use Facebook include:

1. Staying in touch with friends in different locations, countries
2. Finding lost friends
3. Exchanging info on interesting new books, movies, shared interests
4. Staying current on contact information
5. Engaging in dialogue around topics such as politics, technology
6. Simple entertainment
7. Advertising and marketing, personal, professional and commercial
8. Information and discussion forum for issues ranging from job search and the economy to healthcare and alternative therapies
9. Posting pictures for purposes as diverse as sharing with friends, personal ego needs, and professional career advancement

Some FB devotees deplore older users while some welcome the vehicle to stay in touch with extended families. Some denounce "the trendies" who came because FB is/was hot and then "keep moving on and are at Twitter right now."

Many said that there really isn't any difference in online communication tools - they're just tools that make simple, perhaps simplistic, communication more readily available. Some wrote that exchanging Facebook messages is preferred because unlike meeting someone in real life, or even talking on the phone, you can more easily get out of a conversation you don't want to continue.

Many noted that long distance relationships are easier to maintain with FB or some other social networking tool, while others thought email was better. In this reference, it would appear that the nail is the same (communicating over a distance), and some people prefer different kinds of hammers.

Some claim Facebook is a distraction and write extensively about how much time they keep wasting diving back to see the latest post about someone's movie choice last night or party tonight. Of course, even if someone is distracting themselves from life, that's not Facebook's fault.

But that's a great issue to examine. If someone complains about how distracting or devoid of meaning they find FB, are they talking more about the tool, or how they are using it?

If you or someone you know seems to be wasting time using FB, becoming continually distracted, or otherwise find the experience less than satisfying, then a better question might be: What need are you trying to fulfill? (Symbols vs. Experience).

Gabe offered some nice insights when he wrote:

Facebook doesn't replace real world interaction for most people. There are at least four ways that it can actually enhance real world interaction:

1. Getting reacquainted with an old friend or finding a new friend in an old acquaintance. For example, a guy I went to high school with ran in very different circles from mine back then and we barely knew each other, but since connecting on Facebook we found we share a similar sense of humor, similar interests, and a similar worldview, and we've spent time hanging out IRL that never would have happened otherwise.

2. Maintaining contact info: There are only so many people I am close enough with to maintain phone numbers and email addresses as people move and whatnot. For the rest, Facebook makes keeping track of contact info so much simpler.

3. Getting the small talk out of the way: One of the things I hate most about parties or other situations where you see people you haven't seen in a while is the ritual of comparing notes on employment, relationship status, recent travels, etc. Facebook takes care of all this, so when you see that person who is a Facebook "friend", you can get right into the real conversation.

4. Stimulating deeper conversation: Some people, myself included, are naturally inclined towards being reserved in novel social situations (read: shy). If you're at a party and you're shy, the chances of getting beyond even the shallowest small talk can be pretty slim. But if you've been emboldened by the exhibitionist format of the Facebook interface, you'll already have revealed things about yourself that invites people's curiosity, and you'll be more likely to have a more interesting, and more intimate, conversation.

Eric wrote:

I've been on and off Facebook a number of times because it's mostly just chit-chat. You have to work at it, just like you have to work at any normal conversation with someone. I've finally come to the conclusion that for long distance relationships, with people I don't see very often, and when I want to draw other people into the conversation, its lots of fun.

For me it's not about the number of friends I have, but the number of friends who actually communicate.

From Matt, a sophomore at a North Carolina university:

Everyone I know around my age has a Facebook account, with more and more of the older generations I know hopping on board - it was shocking at first to be friended by my grandfather. Even the most anti-social and reticent of my friends have Facebook accounts that they maintain.

Facebook allows you to have real time communication with whomever you please, provided they are also online, and browsing the site. But then I realized that even though you can have a "conversation" through Facebook (and I have countless times, sometimes lasting hours), I have found that as you get less and less attached to the person you're talking to, the less any real communication gets through.

When typing you don't have any fluctuations in tone, volume, etc. It's extremely hard to convey happiness, sarcasm, teasing, sadness, etc. just through typing. I've often thought that the invention of emoticons in typing is not just an internet meme that was spontaneously developed by nerds fooling around with keyboards, but actually fills a very real need to convey emotions when it would otherwise be very difficult to do so by any other means. I've also wondered if phones don't do the same thing to us on a more limited level, due to the person on the other end not being able to interpret any facial expressions or body language.

Clearly, there are multiple needs and multiple ways to fulfill those needs. Ultimately, where I am headed with this series is an exploration of what drives the need to communicate in the internet age using internet tools. More importantly, I'm hoping we can explore the difference between the experience of communication and the tools we choose.

As last week, please do post your thoughts here as comments or drop me an email with your thoughts, counterpoints, alternatives or suggestions. My one request is that we try to stay civil in the process.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.