In Defense of Social Networking Services

Perhaps it’s a certain conservative preference for the traditional and familiar that makes it easier for old things to escape criticism while new and popular innovations are widely derided for the slightest flaws. But aren’t we being a bit unfair to Facebook and Twitter?

In my social network, Facebook long ago achieved ubiquity but is still generally regarded as a kind of lesser vice. People mention that they don’t check Facebook these days in much the same way they might mention that they’re eating more vegetables, and when they announce they’ve deleted their Facebook, as periodically happened, the response is not “Why?” but “How long do you think you’ll last?” Now, it’s true that it’s possible to waste a lot of time on Facebook, or use it stupidly or for stupid things. These criticisms are also true of things like cars and chairs. The reason Facebook is ubiquitous, though, is that it provides a startling amount of utility. To take just one example, Facebook Events are the kind of thing I would wish for if they did not already exist. If I wanted to get a number of people together to do something, I could attempt to reach them all through a combination of calls, text messages, emails, letters, etc., and try to remember or record whether they were attending, maybe attending, or not attending, or whether they hadn’t yet gotten back to me. I could do all that, but Facebook does it for me and also lets me put important information (such as a list of other invitees and the address of the location) in a publicly available place.

I’ve heard the criticism that Facebook has a negative effect on social relationships. For example, when you find yourself thinking about a friend or relative in another city or country, you might end up posting a sentence or two on their wall rather than calling or writing them. This idea fits in nicely with the (reactionary) narrative of modern technology reducing social interaction to a superficial level: iPods, laptops, and Blackberries insulating us from the outside world, luxury air-conditioned SUVs disconnecting us from other atomized individuals, etc. As you can tell, I am somewhat skeptical of that narrative, but of course that doesn’t mean that this criticism of Facebook is wrong. My own personal experience seems to support the idea that social media allows us to maintain loose ties with more people than we otherwise could, at a level called “ambient intimacy.” It seems to me that Facebook’s utility lies less in keeping in touch and more in keeping track of people. Once I’m friends with someone on Facebook, I know I’ll have a record of who they are and a means of reaching them if I ever want to.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, has yet to achieve widespread acceptance among people I know. Many people I’ve talked to about it have expressed the opinion that it is primarily used by self-obsessed people who need the world to know what they had for breakfast, and furthermore that the 140-character limit is inexplicable. Before I get to those criticisms specifically, here are a few times when Twitter has been the ideally suited tool to the task at hand. First of all, last month I went to a play with a friend of mine. A couple hours before the curtain rose, it appeared that she might not be able to come after all. I would have been fine with going alone, but it would be a shame to waste a ticket when there might have been someone else around who would have liked it. I could have started calling people I knew, but for any given person there was a low chance they would be free and interested. I could have sent out a mass text message or email, but I didn’t want to bother people unnecessarily and texts can cost money. A second example also occurred last month, when I invented a cocktail I particularly liked. I wanted to share the simple recipe with the world, but it was by no means important or urgent and didn’t require a whole conversation—only 136 characters, as it turned out.

Twitter is the perfect solution in these kinds of case. As opposed to phone calls, emails, letters, and text messages, it’s a passive means of communication, by which I mean that messages don’t intrude upon anyone but wait in a designated location for people to check them. (The distinction I’m drawing between passive and active means of communication is fuzzy; after all, letters and emails do wait in designated places, the mailbox or inbox, for you to check them.) Blogs are also passive communication, but if I had posted the ticket offer to my blog, I very much doubt anyone would have seen it in time. The 140-character limit ensures that Twitter is used only for quick messages, whereas the blog’s unlimited space allows me to post long entries. Someone might check my blog when they have the time and interest to read through a long post, but they might check Twitter in the same way they check their email.

Aside from the two examples mentioned above, I’ve also posted links to websites and news stories (sometimes together with my opinion), “ReTweets” of important or interesting messages by other people, and, yes, one or two updates on my own life. For many Twitter users, I’m sure the mix tilts more heavily towards personal updates. These people probably have followers—if anyone is interested in hearing about their lives—or perhaps they don’t. Are they self-obsessed? Does it matter? The utility I get out of Twitter has nothing to do with them. Facebook and Twitter, like other social networking services, are tools in the great toolbox of daily life. It should be considered a virtue to use them for the tasks they are well-suited to rather than to abstain from them.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


One Response to “In Defense of Social Networking Services”

  1. «It should be considered a virtue to use tools for the tasks they are well-suited to.»

    Ah ! the grand old style !

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