Why we share on social media, and why I’m reining back
Facebook recently announced yet more changes in the way that we organise our relationships on its social network. It’s making it easier for us to group friends into lists and from there decide what we’re going to share with each group. It should help us control our privacy more.
For me it couldn’t come sooner because, much to my surprise, recent events have made me realise that my life on Facebook and other social networks was just too public.
I’ve been an active user of social networks for years; I developed a social networking website, originally called JewishNet 13 years ago. I’ve been actively using Facebook for the past five years, Twitter for three and Google+ since it launched earlier this year.
Sometimes my friends have complained that I “take over” their Facebook or Google+ homepage because of the volume of content I share, both professionally and personally. But no more.
Some events in my personal life recently made me sit back and question, really for the first time, why we post what we do and what it’s telling us about the way we think and live our lives.
For a few years, I’ve worried that social networks can be a distraction from real life, can reduce our productivity and potentially warp the way that we understand friendship. But I’ve also seen how good Facebook can be at helping build and maintain real friendships and organise real world socialising. It’s so much easier and informal to exchange Facebook details with someone you meet at a party than exchanging phone numbers and then seeing that person’s Facebook profile.
All that’s great, but slowly but surely your list of “friends” grows. People you went to school with, people from university, old work colleagues, your ex’s friends, some bloke you met at a party and so on.
I think this has made us change the nature of friendships. Obviously, we all have various degrees of friendship. I know who my close friends are and I speak to them in real life, not just on Facebook. But should we be sharing our intimate thoughts and images with this wider group of “friends”?
And then there’s the images themselves. It’s hard to remember a world before photos on Facebook.
It’s become routine when we go on holiday, have a party or a new baby is born to quickly upload all the photos of said occasion straight there. It’s probably part of the reason for the boom in digital cameras.
Once we upload the photos, we tag everyone in them, not only sharing with our friends the said event but their friends also. Again, all too often without thinking first.
I was trying to deconstruct why I do it. I’m not afraid to say that I’m at least a little vain, I wouldn’t appear on television if I wasn’t. But on a first glance that accounts for a tiny proportion of the 750m people on Facebook. So my reasons must be pretty similar to large number of those users who upload photos and change their status updates all the time.
I guess it’s because actually, it is a little like being on television. Because being on Facebook (and other social media) is a bit like being a celebrity. Spotted (or tagged) at places you have been; photographed at parties in various states of intoxication; your future plans (events) publicised in advance and your innermost thoughts known to people who barely or don’t know you. It’s a bit like ‘The Truman Show’, except in my case, it’s ‘The Benjamin Cohen Show’.
The “Like” button (or +1 on Google) shows you when your “friends” appreciate something you’ve said, somewhere you’ve been or something you’ve done.
The comments give even more detailed feedback, “you look great”, “that’s so funny”, “I’m literally LOLing!” Some of even us measure our worth in terms of the number of “Likes” something has achieved. “Amazing number of likes over this” I’ve heard more than once in conversation.
It’s feeding our ego but it’s also normalising what is still very new behaviour. It lulls us into a false sense of certainty and habit that can go wrong. Behaviour that can upset the friends who you might “tag” at a location or “tag” in a photo. The actions that you take without realising first the ripple effect of consequences of your own behaviour. I’ve done it and I’ve been upset at the photographs and location tags I’ve found being broadcast to everyone I know.
I came out of a really long-term relationship a few years ago. We’d been in a relationship long before Facebook and so when it came along, by default, I was “in a relationship” with him. But when we split up, I simply removed the relationship part of my profile, while his went to “single”.
It’s hard to express how hurtful it is to see a load of people you know clicking “like” when they see that news. I saw the same recently when a few of my friends split up. It’s slightly disturbing and it’s something we’ve not encountered as a society before.
So what have I done about it? I considered culling my Facebook friends list. But then I thought that would be rude, and you never know why you might want to get in contact with someone again. Sometimes it is nice to hear genuine news, such as someone is getting engaged or having a kid.
I thought about trying to convince everyone I know to move to Google+ so that I could easily place them in different circles or friendships. But then of course, not everyone would join.
So, inspired by Google+, I’ve gone through my list of “friends” and divided them into different circles. Circles that I’d share everything with, circles that I’d share some things with and circles I’d mainly share pieces of content available elsewhere, such as my blog or the Channel 4 News website.
But I’ve also done something else; I’ve stopped sharing as much, full stop. I used to post things like “having a bad day” on Twitter, I’m not any more. I guess I posted these sorts of statuses to feel good that 20 or so of my 9,000 or so followers would say “hope you feel better”.
I used to share photos of all sorts of things on Facebook, not any more. Of a recent holiday, I’ve shared 4 out of 100 or so photos.
I’m not suggesting that everyone else should do the same, but I’m suggesting that quite a few people might, many have already. Mark Zuckerberg has always said the world would be a better place if it was more open.
I’m suggesting that sometimes the world might be a better place if it was more private.
Follow @benjamincohen on Twitter.