Facebook’s False Frame of Reference

At the Cyborgology blog, Jenny Davis raises good points about this recent study, titled ” ‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.” The media takeaway from this study, as Davis notes, is to report that Facebook makes us feel bad about ourselves because on the site we see other people mainly at their best and happiest, as people work to present themselves in the most flattering and enviable light. That fits with what my experience with Facebook was: It made me all too aware that people I knew had lives that went on without me. They had the temerity to seem perfectly happy without any reference to me. I thought we were friends!

In other words, using Facebook made me feel acutely narcissistic, not because it got me to boast about myself, but because it brought home to me just how much I expect other people’s lives to revolve around me. And using Facebook more did nothing to acclimate me to this. I didn’t get used to the invitations to be envious. Eventually I stopped using Facebook altogether. I didn’t want the false frame of reference with my friends and am admittedly too self-centered to be bothered to be voyeuristic toward friended acquaintances.

The study’s findings echo a complaint that has long been made about television: that it gives us a false intimacy with people from outside our accustomed sphere and habitus and makes us dissatisfied with ourselves and our lot. Davis wants to argue that this false-frame-of-reference problem “rests not in the platform itself, but in the potentially unhealthy ways that some people engage with it.” As Davis explains, the study found that “feelings of relative inadequacy are amplified for those with large numbers of Facebook Friends who they do not personally know. These relationships are less about interactivity and more about surveillance. They are less about mutual growth, depth, and closeness, and more about looking, judging, and comparative self-evaluation.” The less outside context we have for another person’s Facebook page, the less able we are to read between the lines, take it for the heightened version of reality that it probably is.

If we rely on Facebook as primarily a surveillance device, unable to incorporate any information not put forth on the Facebook page, then the measuring stick against which we judge ourselves will represent an unattainably fulfilling existence—making us feel bad. This is an unhealthy way to use Facebook. And yes, the architecture of Facebook facilitates this kind of use.

I’ll say it does. There is no need to use Facebook to engage in actual communication with actual friends. If anything, Facebook can make such communication seem trivial or tactical by making it take place in front of an audience. Facebook seems premised on the idea that it makes friendship more convenient, which seems to run counter to the essence of strong ties: Facebook can start to make it seem that some people are communicating with you only because it is convenient; otherwise they couldn’t be bothered. Friends shouldn’t let friends Facebook-message them.

I think Facebook is in the business of making strong ties feel like weak ties, to turn friends into audiences, and to turn the conversation among friends into gossip. The company doesn’t exist to help friends feel friendly. There is no money in that, no money in secure and stable relationships. As a cursory survey of advertisements should suffice to prove, insecurity is what sells products, and Facebook is in the business of selling communication as a product (and selling audiences to advertisers and data to marketers based on that intercepted communication). Thus, as Davis suggests, Facebook is engineered for gossip and invidious comparison, not friendship or intimacy. Its business model is about destroying intimacy in favor of the loneliness of spying and the desperation of sharing as quantified attention-seeking.

I agree with Davis that one could in theory subvert the site’s architecture and use it in a way that is not corrosive to one’s social life; it can help sustain ties across geographic distances. It helps you crowdsource various questions and allows you to reap the benefits of weak ties. It lets you find someone to play Scrabble with. And so on. If you really did limit Facebook use to such things, it might not be so deleterious, might not alter the way one frames friendship and self-esteem and what amount of recognition one should expect. But as Facebook is a social network, we don’t get to determine how we use it in isolation. Our use is governed to a degree by how others expect we will use it. (This makes it an effective conductor of ideology — an institution for interpellation, to get all Althusserian. It hails us.) Using Facebook comes with an entire set of social norms, and these norms (about who to friend, what to share, how to reciprocate, what privacy should consist of, what identity consists of, etc.) are precisely where the dangers with Facebook lie. It seems to me you can’t have a Facebook profile without being drawn centripetally into these norms’ orbit.