Too much information — or too little?

The quality of human interaction Facebook offers is deeply unsatisfying

August 02, 2010|By Tom Moriarty

Last week, The Baltimore Sun reported that Facebook has 500 million users. That's half a billion people, more than the populations of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. If the total number of Facebook users held hands and formed a physical connection, rather than just an electronic one, they would stretch half a million miles, circling the Earth more than 20 times.

But I tried Facebook, and I don't like it.

I know, I know. Half a billion people can't be wrong. But in my experience, there's something deeply dissatisfying about life on Facebook.

It's not an empty life, that's for sure. Even with a pathetic total of only 18 friends, I still get about 10 pieces of news a day. And if you count the comments other people make about those news items, every day I get, roughly, 20 individual communications.

But it's not a full or very meaningful life, either. None of the messages I receive each day are worth the pixels they're printed on. Most are links to other sites, shorthand for, "I saw something on the web today and here it is." No comment, no context, no reason why it was sent or why I might like it. Just letting me know that they were online today.

Others are status updates, usually about work, or what might happen after work, generally written from work. Some include photos, uploaded from mobile phones. Occasionally I get an amusing message, but most are a bit dull. Few, if any, are memorable.

The problem might be me. I'm too old — and too smart, I like to think — to let it all hang out online, and I suspect most of my friends are as well. So we carefully edit our lives down to trivial bits of nothing, fit for online consumption. Plus, since we're already busy with jobs and family, we willingly buy into Facebook's central conceit that status updates are as good as phone calls, and that links to websites and grainy photographs (without captions) — are as good as an e-mail. (My mother would disagree with that last sentiment as well. A couple years ago, she warned me to not ever think about sending an e-mail or an e-card on her birthday. When it comes to your mom, you'd better go to Hallmark and buy her a real card, or there's gonna be trouble.)

About a year ago, I lost touch with one of my oldest friends. When I finally caught up with him, he told me that he'd given up on phone calls and e-mails. All his social interactions, he said, except with the wife and kids, were now exclusively on Facebook. I haven't heard how it's working out for him. I think he went to Atlanta a couple times last year, and I know he loves reading The Onion online. Besides that, I'm not really sure.

Facebook's critics often contend that the problem with the site is too much information. All those friends, and all those updates, they say, are just too much. Nobody, except maybe my nieces, whose hyper-evolved thumbs allow them to text for hours on end without cramping, has the time to keep up with all that information.

But in my experience, the problem with Facebook is not too much but too little information — or at least too little of the kind that matters. Inside its cozy world, it's too easy to substitute ephemera for real communication, too tempting to think of all those little bits of trivia as a real relationship.

Which is why I'm giving up on Facebook and taking down my online profile, such as it is. I never put up a photo, and I listed my occupation as jail, adding that things didn't work out so well after high school, so I won't be losing much. I'm also thinking about calling my old friend to see how he's doing. I have his number, and I think he'd be happy to hear from me.

My only concern is that we might not have anything to say.

Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University. His e-mail is tamoriarty@salisbury.edu.

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