Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

When Facebook Stopped Being Fun

"Ugh. It's all just... babies now." This is what a lot of people I know, who grew up with Facebook as the habitual digital appendage to student life, now say when I ask them what they think of the social network. The universal refrain of, "But it's good for keeping in touch with people I don't see often," usually follows a few seconds later.

But it's that visceral resentment of seeing other people's lives get a little more serious that seems to linger. There is even a Google Chrome extension, unbaby.me, which offers to remove baby pictures from your newsfeed and replace them with "awesome stuff".

If OkCupid does not create new kinds of awkwardness or self-doubt when dating, but simply exposes or makes those things more apparent, then Facebook does the same for a long-established feature of being twenty-something: life envy.

People naturally compare themselves to one another, and expressing discomfort at seeing your friends pair up, get married, have children, have a divorce - or any of that "grown-up" stuff has always been a symptom of various social pressures which long predate the existence of Facebook. But that said, Facebook deserves a special mention here. Because, even I will admit, Facebook used to be fun.

It used to be more consciously frivolous. For a certain slice of my generation, who discovered it in their later school years or while at university, Facebook was a revelation. You poked people. You made silly status updates. You pranked your friends. Sure there were problems and social tensions from day one, but we were students, mostly, and having a good time always carried the day.

"For a certain slice of my generation, who discovered Facebook during school or university, the site was a revelation"

Of course I remember discussions where we criticised each other's self-projection. Some people posted picture after picture of drunken club nights. Others, we decided, seemed overtly narcissistic. (How we detested them!) Some were needy, some were pranksters. A handful were hacks and one or two very strange people weren't on Facebook at all. Social cliques, so searing in their intensity and proximity to one another at university, were reflected by these "categories" of Facebook profile. It was part of being social that we could recognise those and update our own profiles accordingly so as to get the tone "right".

All of this, despite feelings of competitiveness and/or resentment (which certainly did exist), was part and parcel of the student experience. At the end of the day, despite these factions and personality schisms, we were all safe in the knowledge that we were all at the same exact stage of life.

Then people started getting married. And having babies. An endless stream of offspring, whose births, first steps and adorable moments were documented and broadcast for all to see. Suddenly, people - whether or not they felt part of a majority - started to feel that this was oppressive. "Everyone's getting married!" is a common, exasperated observation of the single twenty-something. Facebook has done nothing to make that realisation easier to deal with or more palatable for those of us who may not have found our soulmate. Indeed, because wedding photographs and baby pictures tend to get especially high levels of "engagement" (likes, comments, shares), they can seem all the more unavoidable.

Weddings, invitations, photographs, romantic messages to future spouses, etc. may be first encountered via the social network. Facebook is much more than an adjunct to our knowledge of these occurrences, it is often the very place that we discover them - not least because we are in touch with so many people there with whom we wouldn't otherwise communicate. Therefore, we develop a sense of how dense the incidence of weddings / births / promotions / divorces / deaths is among our contacts and the medium in turn frames that in its particular way.

The simple fact of "knowing" thanks to Facebook is not to be understated. My Twitter friend, Jay Owens, recently mentioned that she had received an email invitation to a ten-year high school reunion for what she describes as a "frighteningly competitive girls' school". Simply encountering old school friends and finding out what they were up to was enough to make her dread the thought of the event:

 

 

The problem, of course, is that Facebook is like a nightmarishly intense, never-ending school reunion where all of the people you don't really want to talk to get to expose their lives in self-congratulatory detail. Resentment for that is remarkably difficult to dispel.

If we're all honest, we didn't join Facebook because we saw it as the great social utility that Zuckerberg and the brand's marketing incessantly claims it to be. We signed up because it was a laugh. We poked one another, posted silly status updates, and shared embarrassing pictures of our friends' inebriated mishaps. Now we are presented with a Facebook that frames our social lives as commodities within an emporium of sharing.

"From the moment you turn on your phone, you see what your friends are sharing," announces the campaign video for the much-discussed Facebook Home Android launcher; Facebook's latest innovation. Nothing could turn me off the idea of handing my phone OS over to Facebook, Inc. more than that exact statement.

And I don't have to be an embittered, resentful, self-loathing twenty-something to feel that way. Even the beautiful people, knowing that they are beautiful, probably feel the intensity of Facebook's gaze too and long, secretly, for escape. Oh, to live away from the glare of royal life, like you, Aladdin!

I think two things have happened in recent years which have turned the generation of students who "discovered" Facebook away from the network. The first is an awareness of branding; the idea that Facebook seems to want us to see ourselves as resources, as quantified, as brands. I've talked about that several times before and Nathan Jurgenson and Whitney Erin Boesel have also written a great piece called "social" vs. "Social" for the Cyborgology blog.

Google Facebook search

The second factor is less within Facebook's control, and that is this graduation of young people's lives into adult people's lives. For many people, seeing that graduation unfold around them is irritating. Baby pictures, more than anything it seems, provoke reactions of disgust and withdrawal, perhaps because there is nothing more difficult to express disgust and withdrawal over than the birth of a child. If you don't believe me, try telling a new parent you're not interested in their kid.

Another concern frequently cited is that children who grow up with a legacy of Facebook posts deposited ahead of them by adoring parents. They will experience their own sense of resentment come the time when they inevitably look back on the trail of mush which has preceded them and hunt, desperately, for ways to eradicate it from the web forever.

Lots of people have criticised this practice. Dr Andrea Bonior, writing in Psychology Today, notes that projecting for your child could be damaging to their future self-esteem: "It's arguably harder to engender independence when you're ready and waiting to continually narrate their development with an audience in mind. In fact, it starts to look a little Truman Show."

"It starts to look a little Truman Show."

And a friend of mine, who recently became a father, posted a status update in which he said, "For those who are wondering or care, I won't be including too many posts about the birth and life of my child. photos and posts will be kept to a minimum, as I would like for [my child] to learn about Facebook himself without it being imposed on him."

That my friend felt compelled to explain himself over this issue says a lot about the status quo (no pun intended) of over-sharing parents dominating our newsfeeds.

Equally, the fact that Facebook has stopped seeming so fun because of things like this should be a big, big worry for Mark Zuckerberg. By constantly reiterating that Facebook ought to be thought of as the hub of your life, even the essence of your smartphone, the social network is eroding its own sense of charm and fun. Desperately wanting to be resourceful, structural and indispensable is turning Facebook into the opposite of the awesome hangout space it once was.

In other words, Facebook tried to grow up with us. It changed; settled down. And it just isn't cool anymore.

 

Photo: "Another perfect family" by Sam Salt. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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