“Great, I’ll just friend you on Facebook,” a girl said to me. Probably seeing the blank expression on my face, she added: “You do have Facebook, right?”
It was an early morning in August 2005, and I had just arrived at Columbia University in New York City. The campus was as bustling as ever, and like over 1,000 other students, I was eager to begin my undergraduate studies. Many of them were hauling one item after another, – a pair of sneakers, a reading lamp followed by an oversized beanbag – to their future dorm room. I, however, carried a single suitcase. Still jetlagged, I was one of the few international students attending Columbia. Back then, the idea of Facebook hadn’t crossed the ocean to my home country Germany,. I had no idea what the girl was talking about.
“Uh, no.” I stuttered. And that was the last time her emerald-green eyes ever met mine. I don’t even remember her name.
In 2005, one year after it was created, Facebook was still limited to university campuses in the U.S. In fact, a college email address was required to join. The same year, the company launched a high school version, and in 2006, expanded to include commercial organizations. In 2010, the site closed in on 500 million monthly visitors, and is now the most popular online social networking portal.
But just as the number of Facebook visitors has been on the rise, it appears that many other users are committing the opposite: Web2.0 Suicide. “Meet Your Real Neighbors Again!” and “Sign out Forever!” are the slogans of the Web2.0 Suicide Machine, which “lets you delete all your energy sucking social-networking profiles, kill your fake virtual friends, and completely do away with your Web2.0 alterego.”
Here’s how it works: let’s say you have 1,000 “friends.” The machine will delete your social networking presence eleven times faster than “manual suicide,” that is, if you did it yourself.
As of right now, it works with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn. The site clarifies to the user that “we are not deleting your account! Our aim is rather to remove your private content and friend relationships than just deactivating/deleting the account!” Thus, in addition to changing your profile picture, password and removing all private content and notification, the program ultimately joins your account to the Facebook group “Social Network Suiciders.” Similarly, it removes all your tweets on Twitter and on MySpace, it even leaves a status message that you’ve “committed suicide.” On LinkedIn, your profile picture and password are changed, and all your business contacts are deleted.
But what about the ethical ramifications of “killing” all of one’s virtual friends and employers? What does one lose and what does one gain by not participating in Facebook and other social networking site? In his FAQ to the Web2.0 Suicide Machine, Walter Langelaar explains that he and his team do not consider the site unethical. They are convinced that “everyone should have the right to disconnect” and that “seamless connectivity and rich social experience offered by web2.0 companies are the very antithesis of human freedom.” According to the creators of the Web2.0 Suicide Machine, “users are entrapped in a high-resolution panoptic prison without walls, accessible from anywhere in the world.” In their opinion, “merely deactivating the account is just not enough!”
Others would argue that deactivating and/or committing “web suicide” can have serious ethical implications. Even though you are not “killing” your friends in real life, as another FAQ of the Web2.0 Suicide Machine clearly states, you could be losing what is called “social capital.” Nicole Ellison, an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University, has written extensively on the relationship between Facebook use and social capital, an elastic term that generally refers to the resources accumulated through the relationships among people . According to Bourdieu and Wacquant, these resources can be actual or virtual (p. 14).
In a 2007 research study titled “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends:’ Social Capital and College Students' Use of Online Social Network Sites,” Ellison concludes that not participating in Facebook can cause a loss of social capital with one’s peers and potential employers. Specifically, Facebook played a positive role in bridging social capital, that is, it “crystallize(s) relationships that might otherwise remain ephemeral,” (p. 21). Moreover, Facebook use was related to measure of psychological well-being, “suggesting that it might provide greater benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction” (p. 21).
Ellison’s study certainly has its limitations; it was based on only 286 students at Michigan State University, and dates back to 2007. However, the positive relationship between measures of Facebook use and perceptions of social capital are reflected in cases of “web suicide.” A particularly compelling and perhaps even disturbing post from another “web suicide” blog, www.lifewithoutfacebook.com, reads:
12.30.09 Today I feel it. I actually feel it. Almost like an addict. I have had the urge to go to Facebook numerous times tonight. To check news feeds and photos and see what people are up to on New Years. It is only day six. This might be harder than I thought. The feeling of freedom has momentarily been replaced by a feeling of being on the outside. I literally feel like the only person that I know that is not part of the group. I deleted my Facebook bookmark. My will is strong, I will live to fight another day…
For this blogger, “a feeling of being on the outside” is the result of his or her “life without Facebook.” In today’s hyper-connected society, socializing on a virtual level has become a standard. As Harry McCracken, Time magazine’s technology expert, explains: Facebook “has become a default form of identity on the web – if you don’t have an account, it’s becoming like not having an email address or a driver’s license.” Precisely for this reason, McCracken himself began writing about “Life Without Facebook.” The site is such an integral of modern society that, if one doesn’t use it, one risks losing part of one’s social capital. When the Web2.0 Suicide Machine joins one’s account to the Facebook group “Social Network Suiciders,” they are officially out of the loop.
According to McCracken, the fact that Facebook plays such a significant role in today’s society “has lots of fascinating implications.” Portals like Facebook can come to define a person’s identity. Similarly, gadgets and apps are taking over our lives, as Mickey Meece of the New York Times proposes in a recent article titled “Who’s the Boss, You or Your Gadget?” According to Meece, smartphones and laptops are tipping the work/life balance, and many people feel the need to be connected 24/7.
In fact, one could question whether modern technology use, including Facebook, has become an addiction for some. The “web suicide” blog cited above would certainly resonate with this idea: the writer feels “almost like an addict,” experiences an “urge” and ultimately, expresses a “strong will” to fight the temptation. Janet Bayer, a recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, would concur:
To some people, yes, Facebook can be seen as something similar to a drug (…) Some people have structured their whole life around it and spend all their wake hours on the site. But most people I know – including myself – simply don’t have the time or luxury to procrastinate all day and lose themselves in it.
McCracken, however, agrees that Facebook is not an addiction; “As with all other things in life that are interesting, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and there are downsides.”
Nora Sturm agrees:
The bigger problem is behavioral: people, including myself, are easily entertained and can waste serious amounts of time and energy engaging in mindless, pointless surfing. Facebook is just one example of this.
Whether or not one considers Facebook an addiction or drug, the fact that it has come to assume an important role in today’s identity creation poses serious questions. Ellison’s adversaries would argue that Facebook promotes online rather than offline relationships. In 2008, Saumya Vaishampayan titled an article in the Tufts Daily: “Life without Facebook: Is it possible?” Back then, the Tufts university student already observed that several of her classmates are “no longer ’In a Relationship’ with Facebook,” the most common reasons being that it hampers productivity. According to the students interviewed by Vaishampayan, Facebook only maintains virtual, rather than physical, ties.
Celestine Chua, the creator of “The Personal Excellence Blog,” has done precisely the opposite of losing herself in Facebook. She is making money from her “web suicide.” Her blog, which has been featured in over 25 media outlets, including CNN, details that she deleted Facebook from her life in December 2008. She later writes about the “increased time, productivity and reduced clutter.” Chua now provides coaching for people who want to follow her footsteps and achieve their very own “personal excellence.” In fact, when I tried to contact her for an interview, I realized that she did not have an active email address, and was met with this message:
If you'd like to contact me, I'd like to inform you that I've closed off my email from personal communication. This is part of a move to (1) Get a social life outside of email and (2) Focus on why I started TPEB to begin with, which is to create high value content for people around the world.
Chua is “happy to contribute” to “publications/sites with at least 10k circulation.” Anyone else who would like to contact her can schedule a $120/hour coaching session. A link to make a PayPal payment is made available. Ellison may argue that Chua has lost social capital, but she has made economic gains.
In fact, Chua isn’t the only one abstaining and benefiting. In her article, “New Year’s Resolutions Go Online for Added Support or Pressure,” New York Times writer Stephanie Rosenblum reports on the importance of the web in setting and meeting goals. For those who would not normally follow through with a resolution on their own, putting promises online can be the best motivation as it creates an online audience for success or failure.
In her article, Rosenblum cites several websites that help people reach their goals. While StickK.com, for example, addresses all types of resolutions, other pages focus on particular goals. Rosenblum explains: “For a would-be hard boy, there’s PEERtrainer.com. A procrastinating writer can go to 750Words.com. Smokers have DeterminedToQuit.com.” No matter what one’s goal is, publishing it online can create motivation. To a certain extent, one might say that the sites bank on online social capital: with the world watching, one is more likely to stick to their goals.
Yet the accessibility of personal data on the Internet has caused countless privacy concerns; as such, those concerns continue to spark debates particularly in the educational realm. For example, children younger than 13 are not allowed to join Facebook, though many of them easily overcome this hurdle by putting in a false birth date. Valentina Castillo, a current law student at Georgetown University, observes that her younger brother “waited to use Facebook until he was the appropriate age.” Her “dad also wanted him to wait for a while.”
Some could assert that in the modern age, it appears that opening a Facebook account is equivalent to losing one’s virginity. Castillo adds: “the one funny thing is that I’m not allowed to comment on his (her brother’s) wall. He said that if I do, people would think that I’m his mother, and then he won’t be cool anymore. ”
Thus, using Facebook comes with a whole new set of behavioral codes and parenting issues. A child whose parents do not allow him or her to use Facebook may feel like an outsider among his or her friends who have accounts. On the other hand, the child could make him or herself vulnerable to dangerous situations by posting personal information online without realizing the consequences. Moreover, educators and psychologists have expressed concerns that children are spending too much time online. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that in former generations, children spent much more time outdoors. Now, children are glued to TVs, videos, and computers, and as a result, are experiencing a range of behavioral problems. Specifically, Louv coins this the “Nature Deficit Disorder” (p. 1).
Teachers, too, are affected by the implications of online social networking. William Kist, associate professor at Kent State University, teaches literacy methods courses for pre-service teachers, and explains that teachers are advised, if not required, to limit or delete their profiles on sites such as Facebook. In an article titled “I Gave Up MySpace for Lent: New Teachers and Social Networking Sites,” Kist outlines that this applies especially to new teachers, who can easily sabotage professional aspirations by posting “potentially embarrassing content” (p. 246). In the same article, he interviewed several of his students, who felt that the restrictions were unnecessary, also alluding to the fact that their social capital was being compromised by not being allowed to use Facebook. Ellen, one of the pre-service teachers in Kist’s class, explains that she, "gave both MySpace and Facebook up for Lent. It’s been so weird not to be on them. I am totally out of the loop as to who is dating whom. One of my friends had a baby, and I didn’t even know it. Between that and student teaching all day, I feel very isolated."
According to Ellen, sites such as Facebook have “become an extension of our expression of self.” Kist points out that some of his students “were defiant about their right to participate in social networking sites being taken away.” Amy, another pre-service teacher, affirms that she “[has] and will continue to use these sites to stay in contact with my friends and family” said Amy. She went on to question why society is so frightened of teachers’ having genuine relationships with students (as mentors and friends). “Developing a trust in their teachers and having a genuine relationship with a teacher helps a student to get the best education he or she can, because it helps the teacher to understand the individual student and his or her needs. If we forget that basic principle of education, it's all a lost cause.”
Other users, too, concur with Amy and argue that there is no need to be extreme for reasons such as these. Just as Google incorrectly flagged the entire Internet as malware, social networking does not need to be ruled out entirely. Instead, it can be used in moderation as a beneficial tool to connect with friends, family, and employers. It is up to the users to be conscious of the information they share, and the amount of time they spend online. Sturm maintains that, “whenever [she] want[s] to disconnect, [she] can simply deactivate Facebook.” Castillo suggests another viable alternative: “I prefer to use an app called Self Control. You can list the websites that you want to be blocked from while still using the Internet. This is great if I need the Internet for research, but don’t want to waste time on Facebook. I think it's an amazing tool.”
Bayer, on the other hand, cannot wait to use the Web2.0 Suicide Machine:
I look forward to the day when I no longer have to be "alive,” and accessible, and can allow myself not to be found." Are Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerman accessible virtually? Is social networking expected of them? I don't think so. Being virtually invisible - or the freedom of ' ‘web suicide’ is a luxury, that one must first earn.
In the meantime, she plans to continue using Facebook to connect with peers and employers, optimizing her social capital.
While there will always be non-users arguing against Facebook, one must recognize that in today’s society, it is an incredibly powerful networking tool. With a few simple clicks, users can reach other users all over the world, be they friends, family, employers or people they have never even met. For this same reason, privacy concerns will always exist. Facebook requires a consciousness that only a minority of users have. If, however, a user is conscious about his or her Facebook activity, the platform can serve as an effective tool to maintain personal relationships and advance professional contacts. Businesses, too, have realized the importance of social media marketing. Media Bistro offers a Social Media Marketing Bootcamp, and at Birmingham City University, you can earn an entire Masters in the same field.
For the individual user, or the parent instructing his child about Facebook use, such educational resources are a little scarcer, although they do exist. Kist, for example, has published a book titled The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age. Though it is targeted primarily at teachers, parents can make use of it, too. Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, addresses general concerns about technology use, as well. Individual users, in turn, can resort to articles such as Barbara Kiviat’s “Using Twitter and Facebook to Find a Job,” published in Time magazine. In other words, the information on how to make the best of Facebook is available. It is up to the individual user to to take responsibility, and optimize the possibilites of online social networking.
Learn more about Isabel Eva Bohrer at www.isabelevabohrer.com.