The Social Affordances of Facebook

In reading the excerpt Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media, I was particularly interested by Facebook’s statement as to the purposes of its own website, in which they said that they intended their platform to be a “place for meaningful interactions with your friends and family–enhancing your relationships offline, not detracting from them” (34).  Of this quote, two primary sentiments about Facebook’s opinion of online interactions stuck out to me: one, that online interactions are meant to be “meaningful,” and two, that Facebook is meant to enhance pre-existing offline relationships.  I wish to complicate both of these proclaimed intentions of social media, using myself as a case study.

First, I don’t think all interactions online are meaningful, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Take the frequent practice of sharing a post with a friend or family member on Facebook.  Is that a deep, profound interaction?  No.  But it’s a small way of saying “hi, I’m thinking of you.”  Most social interactions offline aren’t profound either.  When I commiserate with a classmate over an impending deadline, we’re not connecting on a particularly deep level, but we are showing interest in interacting with one another and sharing a small experience together.  My mom, for instance, posts links on my wall with enormous regularity.  They’re usually small things, like cute animal videos or trailers for a movie she thinks I’ll like.  And every time she posts one, it makes me smile.  I don’t think my interaction with my mom should solely be superficial, but I don’t think it should solely be deep, soul-bearing conversations either.   That would be pretty overwhelming for the both of us. I think all interaction, online or not, needs to be balanced between the deep and the superficial.  Both are necessary components of a healthy relationship, and Facebook certainly makes the small, pleasant interactions much easier.

My mom posted the Marvel ugly Christmas sweater line on my Wall the other day. “Meaningful interaction?” Not really. But a small way of showing she’s thinking about me.

Secondly, I take issue with the notion that online interaction is only meaningful if it enhances offline relationships.  I think it overlooks the increasing regularity of Internet friendships.  Yes, older generations scoff at the idea of being friends with someone you’ve never met in real life, but I think online relationships can be fulfilling, rich experiences.  Over the past several months, I’ve become very close with an online friend.  We talk almost every day about all manner of things.  Yes, sometimes we simply discuss our shared favorite TV shows or tell silly stories, but he’s also someone I can turn to in a moment of real hardship.  We’ve never met offline, but he’s still very important to me.

I think Facebook’s press release about its intentions for its platform overlooks two of the biggest affordances of social media – the potential for small, frequent, pleasant interactions and the ability to foster relationships unhindered by distance.  Were I a Facebook executive, I think I would have phrased that press release a bit differently, instead focusing on these aspects.  Rather than Facebook pretending it’s nothing more than an extension of the offline world, I think it should promote the specific affordances of an online platform.  I agree with Vaidhyanathan that social media certainly damages our social landscape in some ways, but I think Facebook’s press release completely overlooks two of the biggest ways it enhances it.

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