Nov 5, 2007

Facebook and the Case of the Unnatural Degree of Intimacy.

While Facebook’s stock continues to soar, I thought I’d share this (likely familiar) story of Facebook’s major problem: creating an unnatural and artificial degree of social intimacy between two people who barely know each other.

So there’s an art director I work with who asked to “friend” me on Facebook. Now I keep an account under my real name mostly for research purposes: I joined up with a friend of mine about six months ago and the only people I’ve added are those who have found me-- about three dozen altogether.

Now this art director seems like a nice enough guy, his office is not far from mine and I say hello to him in the hallway. But honestly, friends, all I know about him is his name and the state he hails from (long, not-very-interesting story). I don’t know what accounts he works on, who his friends are, where he’s worked previously: none of that.

But now, due to Facebook, which he is quite active about updating regularly, I know all sorts of things about him. That he has a new girlfriend (thus ending one mystery), where they’ve gone on their dates. What her pet name for him is. What movies he and I both like. What books we’ve both read. Which “Friends” character he is most like. His zombies and werewolves have attacked me, and he’s written somewhat amusing messages on my “FunWall.”

All fine and good, except he’s not some long-lost college roommate. He’s some guy I work with and when I see him in person, it’s extremely awkward because I now know all these somewhat intimate details about him and yet we’ve barely exchanged more than “hello.”

I mean what am I supposed to do – go up to him and say “Hey relative stranger. I saw on Facebook that you went to Lars And The Real Girl the other night. Since I also know that you and I appear to have similar taste in movies, did you like it? And what about this new girlfriend of yours—she sure looks hot in her profile pics—did she like it too? Oh, and how was her trip to Michigan to see her sister? Sounds like you really missed her.”

Creepy, right? But thanks to Facebook I can know all sorts of bizarre details about people I barely know in real life.

And that's the problem. Why would I want to put any of my business contacts on a site like that? And don't tell me that all they have to do is give you a mechanism to sort your friends into levels of intimacy. Because the second you label someone who thinks he's your good buddy a "business contact" you've got a world of hurt feelings to attend to.

Solve that, social networking site builders, and then maybe you can get a money-making model in place. But until then, you're not providing me with a whole lot of value.


Codec said...


I can't tell you how right you are. This is why I'm a bit pessimistic about total SNS convergence and I hate the fact that my professional network has converged with my 'real' friends. Isn't that why I also have a Linked In profile??? This is why in the long run I believe that OpenSocial is a better solution where you have a portable profile, but reside in different micro-communities.

Some more thoughts here:


Anonymous said...

I totally agree. The problem is that the people who are really into facebook and those kinds of sites are usually socially awkward. But now in the virtual world they come out of their shell and seem pretty normal (within the online/social context). But if you're seeing this guy in the real world it makes for a strange "clashing of the worlds."

Anonymous said...

i agree. but maybe it's because i'm, ahem, old. i'm betting they young uns find this weird uninvited intimacy completely natural. it would fill a void if i were lonely. not currently a problem!

Alan Wolk said...

@Seni (Codec?) - I agree about OpenSocial, but not about micro communities. I don't think people have time to engage in a variety of micro communities. They'll gravitate to 2 or 3 at most - a work community (LinkedIn) and social community (Facebook) and maybe a 3rd one based on a particular interest (e.g. Red Sox fans, tech enthusiasts, etc.)
But remember most people don't have hobbies they're particularly passionate about.

@Writer's Coin: True enough, but others just use it as a way to keep in touch with far flung friends. And then there are others who really believe that their friends care what they ate for breakfast, sharing inane Twitters such as "waiting at airport with Steve and Greg."

@TSR: I've been told it's great for stalking: you find a person you like ("fancy" for my UK readers) you check out their Facebook page and learn all sorts of things about them. And while I suspect that young 'uns have more false intimacy, I also suspect that when you've got 400 Facebook "friends" it's not that easy to keep up with the activities of each and every one of them. In fact, I suspect if I looked into it, there would be ways to adjust how much of Unknown Art Director's news I received each day.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything to add here except this about the photo:



Anonymous said...

yeah, it's the "news" that gets me too. i really, really, really don't care.

Alan Wolk said...

@fatc: 10 "I Was Alive In The 70s" points if you can tell me what the picture is from.

Anonymous said...

What is...Last Tango In Paris?

(Actually, I wasn't 100% sure that was it, so I cheated and moused over the jpeg to see if its name would confirm. It did. I was around in the 70s, though I was too young for that movie. Was probably putting a KISS poster on my wall and listening to a ZZ Top 8-track of Fandango!—after changing a flat tire on my bike caused by yet another day-long ride with friends around the city without a helmet, our Moms having no idea where we were (and never really freaking out about it) until we came home at dusk like we always did for dinner—the day it came out. Ah, the 70s. Who'd have thought you'd ever look back on what was often a very dark and brooding decade and think of it as a simpler time? Yet I often do these days.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Toad. I think you're one of the only bloggers whose posts constantly make me want to comment (there are times I restrain myself). I need to learn to do that...

Anyway, I'd like to offer a different perspective to this whole thing, if I may.

As a college student (who is a technological addict, really), and having growing up drinking the kooliad of internet cyberculture, the experience you're referring to is something I feel is very much a difference in perspective, and perhaps culture.

What I mean is- the internet is a completely different culture. If you were american and decided to stay in france for the next 6 months, the social interactions would be somewhat different than you were used to because the culture is different (kissing on the cheeks, etc). I feel the internet itself is the home of its very own culture, a culture that one does have to adapt to.

What does that have to do with what you described? Well, there are different rules of engagement online in general, and then micro-rules of engagement based on the communities. One of the whole points of the internet and this whole "social web" 'evolution' is that people want to connect, share, and experience. Facebook provides a platform for that. It acts as the drawbridge that connection can traverse.

To expand on said rules of engagement, the bridge, and culture using your example. Of course you wouldn't just walk up to the guy and start talking to him about those personal things. The reason isn't because you shouldn't know it, it's because haven't followed the rules of engagement, you haven't really fulfilled the social equity ratio (to bastardize both how the term has been used thus far and to apply equity theory in an odd spot). The ratio is unbalanced in its current form. If, on the other hand, you read that he saw a movie that you are curious about and send him a message on Facebook or left a comment on his Wall asking what he thought about it- that would be fine. Why? Because Facebook is a drawbridge that the artist chose to lower in your direction.

I suppose that is an incredibly long way to say that what you describe is in part the beauty of the "networking" part of social networks. To appropriately network, the conversation (with someone new) must start online first before it takes what has become comfortable online into the realm of the offline.

Looking forward to hear your thoughts :)

Alan Wolk said...

@Nathan: First off, thanks for the compliment.

Second off: I hear what you're saying, BUT...

As a blogger, I have a number of "online" friends and there are people who I've connected to through other online endeavors and maintain friendships in that way.

My problem with Facebook is that it's now being used in corporate and other settings. So that the people you are interfacing with on there are people you work with. And (I know you're a college student, so you'll have to trust me on this one) your relationships with co-workers are very different than your relationships with dorm mates, frat brothers or the girl who sits in front of you in History.

For one thing, you see them every day, for most of the day. Sometimes you're called on to make judgments that affect their lives, their incomes, etc. So you don't want to have this weird fauxintimacy with them.

But it's the seeing them every day thing that makes it odd for me. It would be just as odd to develop an online friendship with someone who lived next door to you in your dorm: at some point you'd want to take it offline, especially if it was someone you saw daily. Online friends tend to be people you are not in close proximity too.
But at some point, the two worlds have to collide.

At work, you don't have social relationships with most of your co-workers. They're just people you work with who you're friendly to, but the less you know about them the better. Precisely for the reasons I've listed above.

Hope that helps.

Alan Wolk said...

@FATC: Those were the days. Mrs. T and I often talk about exactly that-- how our parents had no idea where we were until dinnertime, and how we went everywhere on our bikes. Sans helmets and other protective gear. We often wonder if that wasn't a healthier environment for kids, though it would be impossible to resurrect single-handedly today- there would be no other kids on bikes.

I remember being vaguely aware of "Last Tango" - I read the Times every morning and knew it caused some controversy, though I wasn't really sure what all the fuss was about.

Anonymous said...

I am a college student, but I also have a great deal of work experience, I will trust you none the less :)

The relationship with a co-worker is different, you're quite right.

One reason I described the cultural perception was because it seems (correct me if I'm wrong) you're operating under three assumptions.

1) Online friendships are with people you are not in close proximity to.

I use Facebook for quite the opposite, actually. All of my friends are those that I see on a very regular basis. Some are coworkers. Some are far away. Most are close. I've also used it to meet new people.

2) Is something wrong with the "two worlds" colliding? What's to say their "colliding" and not "joining"?

When I lived in university apartments, I did establish relationships with people in the same building online first. Between the online conversations and the seeing each other offline, those two worlds began to overlap (or join), /not/ collide. When I moved to a new apartment on campus, I met my roommates online before I ever met them in person. In the office I maintained a friendship with co-workers that included both online and offline. In fact, one of my bosses and I have talked about playing an online game (thus taking our offline relationship online). We don't know each other particularly well.

3) There must be a separation between "online" and "offline" for a single relationship.

I have a relationship with my room mate that persists both online and offline. These are not two separately managed relationships, but one. The experience online adds value to the experiences offline, and visa vis.

It again goes back to one's reason to be on a "social network" and their level culturization.

We just got a new hire. I see a fair amount of him, especially on fridays. We don't talk much (we're both usually busy). If he decided to send a friend request on facebook my way, I would accept. I'd look at his profile and he at mine. If we found something in common, we might strike a conversation about it. From there the relationship would grow (if it is to). Maybe we have nothing in common and we only say things on occasion. Facebook is just another hallway we might bump into each other walking through.

That said, I agree with your overall statement that Facebook does create an unnatural degree of intimacy. However, as per what's been said so far, I wouldn't say that level of intimacy is in any way bad, and is actually necessary to facilitating relationships (one of the things social networks are about).

It could be what "taod's sixth reader" said has a fair level of truth. I disagree with the concept that those who are "old" can't get the internet. It's simply becoming accustomed to a different culture. The "6th reader" speaks to its "natural" feeling for younger people. This lends to the conjecture I have been making that the net is a culture, and there can be culture shock.

Alan Wolk said...

@Nathan: I think you're confusing a number of messages here.

All I'm saying is that Facebook sucks as a networking tool for people whose main connection is work.

I've already explained to you that I understand why it works as a tool for bringing two strangers together, you and your roommates, you and a classmate.

I have very different relationships with people I work with. You see Nathan, we all want something from each other. They're vendors. Not friends. So the less you know about each other's personal lives, the better.

You're fooling yourself if you think it's generational. Because people of your generation are fleeing Facebook in record numbers? Why? Because they've realized it's not a place you want to connect with your boss.

My argument again is not against the interweb as a social facilitator. It's against Facebook as a virtual water cooler.


Alan Wolk said...

Nathan: Here's something I posted earlier on the Daily Fix. Sums it up pretty neatly:

There's a huge problem with using Facebook at work: Facebook is set up to allow teenagers to expose their social lives to each other.

I don't need to know what movies people I do business with like, which movie star they're most like or what song they lost their virginity to. I don't need them to bite me as a Vampire or match their musical tastes to mine.

They're people I work with. Not my friends.

LinkedIn is how I connect with people I work with. Precisely because it doesn't force me to interact with them and limits the amount of personal information that's exchanged.

Posted by: Tangerine Toad | 11.09.07

Codec said...

Lotsa conversation around this topic. Nathan, I'm a recent graduate, take a read through my post on the history of facebook from a students perspective and tell me if I'm wrong.

Codec said...

Anonymous said...

I suppose the biggest difference is your relationship with your workers as opposed to my own.

I can agree that Facebook sucks as a networking tool if a person's only goal for using it is 'work' and has no desire to build any sort of relationship with their co-workers (or potential colleagues) beyond the shell of work (which is fine). Overall, however, I would disagree that it is not a worthwhile networking tool for business. Connections that can be made via the groups are quite valuable.

I don't see where your assumption that people of the younger generation are fleeing Facebook in record numbers is coming from. I've seen opposite evidence.

All in all, I think it's really just coming down to a difference between your personality and my own. You prefer LinkedIn because you don't want to interact. LinkedIn bores me because I want to interact. Is Facebook right for the more uncasual side of corp. america? In some elements, but otherwise you're right and I think it will take time to be adapted to.

Could Facebook benefit from a "Co-Worker" privacy setting? I bet they could.

Enjoyed the discussion :)

Anonymous said...

This is once again a fascinating discussion. For me, I both love and am leery of Facebook. It has been embraced by professionals, but it is clearly not made for them. MySpace is too filled with spam requests and giant ads for ring tones.

Toad - by now, after having been bitten by a werewolf, had chickens and pigs thrown at me, etc. I don't take the site seriously in a professional matter. And because I don't care if someone else's favorite movie is Flashdance, I don't pay attention anymore.

I'd go nuts.

Now, Nathan and others his age may do it a bit more, but, in time, it will get old.

And, yes, Last Tango in Paris. Marlon Brando and Linda Lovelace.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I was wrong. It wasn't Linda Lovelace.

Alan Wolk said...

@JT: Her name was Maria Schneider.

@Nathan: You're a student. Do your homework. Facebook lost 1 million users. Here's one of many links:
It was a major news story a few weeks ago. You shouldn't miss stories like that.

If you want a reason why, Seni Thomas (Codec) sums it up best:

"Facebook is now likened to being at a bar with your friends, with your parents sitting in the booth to your right and your coworkers to the your left.
It just isn’t much fun."

Facebook vs. LinkedIn isn't a personality thing. Facebook's functionality is fun to use with people I'm actually friends with. But you'll find over the years you have many more business contacts than friends. That's what LinkedIn is for. Two completely different experiences.

As I said in my original post, if Facebook were to start a "coworker" setting, you'd have all sorts of hurt feelings since people often have differnt views of the same relationship: I might consider you a friend whereas to you, I'm just a guy you work with.

Bottom line: However social media shakes out, we need a way to keep our work lives separate from our social ones. There will be people who cross over from one into the other, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

Codec said...

@ Nathan,

Read my post on "Why all media must fragment" as will provide you with a bigger picture analysis of what is going on in the social networking space.


Also, just as an eye opener read this article on the laziness of the youth and youtube. I think it might open your eyes a bit, in general. Its always a good ides to get an outside look at your generation, since, at least in my opinion, we as a generation are about as over-hyped as web 2.0.


Toad - I feel like I'm spamming your comment thread with links to my blog. I am defending your POV though. Anyway, feel free to pull them down if you want.


Alan Wolk said...

@Codec: Not a problem at all. In fact, just the opposite- I'm thrilled that you're backing up your points with posts from your own blog. That sort of interaction is what makes blogging so valuable. (To me, anyway)

Anonymous said...


Check out this story on a kid getting busted by his boss through facebook...

You still want total convergence?