Facebook – a social callenge

Term paper Dikult 206

Spring 2010

Department of
Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic studies

University of Bergen

Table of contents


In my study of Facebook I have chosen to be a participating observer and use my own and my Facebook friend´s Facebook profile and communication as research examples. I will make the example givers anonymous to keep their privacy. I think that to fully experience the aspects of being a user of Facebook one benefits from participating. On the other side this will also be limiting. This is sought compensated trough relating the experiences to relevant research on the field.

1. Introduction

The social network site Facebook.com attracts new users every day and is developing to be the most powerful social network site in the world with over 400 million active users (Facebook, 2010a). Not only do new people sign up each day, but also companies and official institutions are now showing their “face” at Facebook. There are many functions merged together on the Facebook website and that gives possibilities for many types of interactions between users. Trough these interactions people’s lives is affected. In this paper I will look closer into how the use of this social network touch the user’s lives and discuss the main social challenges people meet using Facebook.

2. Young people lead the way

A while ago I was at Bergen Airport to pick up some relatives who was flying in from New York via Amsterdam. With me was my 6-year-old son. We waited for a long time, but they did not show up. I knew they did not have a international mobile phone so they could not phone me or I them. I had no way to reach them.

The airline would not give me any information. I called everyone else in the family and during one of the conversations I said that I had checked my email and phone for messages, but there were none. At that point my 6 year old said: ”and you have checked Facebook too, haven’t you mom?”. I replied yes, but I did not do it. I thought that it was a stupid idea and a product of his new love for Facebook (facebook.com). My older kids had just the week before made a Facebook profile for their brother and he just loved talking to his friends and his family there. Even if there is an age limit on Facebook it is easily fooled.

I went back to the airport after 2 hours to meet the next flight from Amstedam. After 4 hours of waiting we got hold of another relative who works in a travel agency. Trough her channels she found out that the airplane from New York had to do an emergency landing at Halifax in Canada due to problems with an engine. But the relative could also tell us that the people I was waiting for had posted everything on Facebook.

They had been online in the airport in Halifax and since they had forgot to bring phone numbers and email addresses they had come up with the idea to use Facebook. So had I followed my 6-year-old´s advice I would have known at once what had happened. When they finally arrived in Amsterdam they also got online and we talked through Facebook. They could tell me witch flight they were coming with and be happy to know that I would be at the airport in Bergen to meet them.

This story is an example of how one should always listen to young people. But it is also an example of how easy and powerful it is to communicate trough Facebook. As long as you have an Internet connection and some sort of computer you can log on to Facebook and post content anywhere. To find the information it only requires that the receiver also log on to Facebook.

3. How does Facebook work?

To understand why Facebook is a powerful communication platform we have to understand how it works. Facebook is a web based service that offers the users a facility to create a public profile, and through this communicate and link with other users of the website and make these relationships visible to other people (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). The relation and communication between the users and how it is visualized is the main core of the network site (Boyd & Ellison, 2007).

3.1 How to be a user of Facebook

To be able to communicate on Facebook you have to sign up for a profile page (Facebook 2010a). On this profile page you can choose what information you want to show. There is a place for a profile picture and room for information about subjects like gender, birthday, relatives, were you live, what you believe in etc. You can also write something about yourself and list your interests.

The next you have to do is to find users to have a relationship with. To befriend another user on Facebook, both users have to accept the relationship. When you have a friend you can start communicating with him or her. Communication can be performed trough text, videos, pictures, applications and links both as public and private messages. One can also be fan of fan sites and member of different groups or events. Your profile page will show a list of your friends and groups and fan sites you like. The main area of the profile page will show what Facebook calls “The wall”. Here you can post information, and your friends can post information here to. Your profile page is therefore not only created of you, but you have the power to delete anything other people write there. Who your profile page is viewable for will depend on how you set up your privacy settings. This is discussed in chapter 5.4.

There is also a chat function were you can chat with your online Facebook friends.

3.2 Friends on Facebook

A facebook friend is not a friend in the common meaning of the word. It is connections and can be of any degree of closeness to the user. My facebook friends cover a lot of different social groups in my life and ranges from 6 year to 72 year old. They are internationally spread. Tabel 1 shows the various groups that is represented as my facebook friends today. Most of them I already know one way or another from before. That consists well with what research on the field has revealed. Users of Facebook is most interested in keeping in touch with the people they already know (Joinson, 2008) and it is therefore likely that they most often links with other users who they know from before or has relation to in real life.

Tabel 1. Different social groups represented on my Facebook friends-list.
Family Friends Acquaintances
Husband Old schoolmates Friends of my children
Children Fellow students Friends of friends
Mother Teachers Fellow choir singers
Father World of Warcraft friends Neighbours
Cousins Twitter friends Earlier Neighbours
Stepmother Best friends Hairdresser
Aunt and Uncles Distant friends Childhood nanny
Nieces and Nephews Old friends
Distant relatives Children of my friends
Old boyfriend

4. Facebook as a social arena

In her book Life on the screen, Sherry Turkle (1995, p. 233) talks about how Internet gives us new meeting places ”were members of a community can gather for the pleasure of easy company, conversation, and a sense of belonging”. She shows how many people can enhance their life trough participating in Virtual Realities.

One of my friends told me how she uses Facebook: In the evening, when I am tired but not yet ready to go to bed I make me a cup of tea and spend an hour reading and communicating on Facebook. There are always someone to chat with and its nice and cosy.” She gets the same feeling of belonging, conversation and company as she would have got going to a pub or a meeting space. But she is still in her own living room.

My mother sometimes tells me about how society was when she was a child. She grew up on a street in a suburb of Bergen. Everything happened in the street. There were shops, hairdresser and they were important meetingpoints. Here one met, chatted and got the last news about friends and neighbours. These meetingpoints are mainly gone. In how my friend uses Facebook one can wonder if not Facebook can fulfil some of the functions the old meeting points used to have. On Facebook one can meet online, talk and get the last news. Clay Shirky claims in his book “Here comes everybody” (2008) that to be social is one of humans core capabilities. And Facebook is all a bout being social and manage ones social capital (Ellison et. al. 2007). Students who used Facebook benefited also psychological, especially those with low self-esteem. Facebook can be seen as a platform where the user can take care of ones pre-existing social capital of relationships were communication with other users is a requirement for successful outcome.

While Facebook is mainly taking care of the friendships you already have from the real world life there is a possibility to meet new people trough groups. This has a possibility to be rewarding for the user. A survey done by McKenna et al. (2002) showed that the friendships that were formed first via the Internet was stabile and taken further in to real life. They found that two things caused this. It was easier to show ones «true self» online because many of those social input hinders did not seem to exist on the Internet. The second was that it was easier to find like-minded. Those who were most open about themselves had the most success in friendship formation. In laboratory experiments McKenna et al. (2002) found that the group that met each other online first liked each other better when they met in real life compared to the group where the first meeting was in real life. The researchers further claimed that Internet communications have positive qualities that communication in real world do not have. This may be part of the reason why social networking media is becoming very popular.

On the other hand Turkle (1995, p. 236) warns us that this kind of setting, were we substitute face to face relationships with internet mediated relationship can distort our understanding of the real world. We can begin to feel that the Internet relationships are more real than real life relationships.

Another important difference is that it is difficult to know whether you reach the recipient of the communication or not. We can be led to believe that if we do not receive a response to an opinion it has not been read. This is wrong. One reason to participate in social media is to monitor the other’s activity (McKenna et al., 2002). A user may well read everything you write without giving any response (Hewit & Forte, 2006).

5. Sosial challenges using Facebook

According to Shirky (2008) changes in the way we communicate also changes the society. Using Facebook as a new social arena and communicating channel therefore will affect the society. And as Shirky (2008) says:

”The tools that society uses to create and maintain itself are as sentral to human life as a hive to bee life. Though the hive is not a part of any individual bee, it is part of the colony, both shaped by and shaping the lives of its inhabitants. The hive is a social device, a piece of bee information technology that provides a platform, literally, for the communication and coordination that keeps the colony viable. Individual bees can’t be understood separately from the colony or from their shared, co-created environment. So it is with human networks; bees make hives, we make mobile phones.”

The story about my relatives using Facebook to communicate during their problematic journey to Norway showed that Facebook is equally good as a mobile phone in communicating information. Facebook can even be more effective than the mobile phone since the information can be spread to very many people at the same time. One can therefore argue that the wide spread use of Facebook will affect society and social practice. We will now look into some of these possible effects.

5.1 Presenting one self on Facebook

When I created my profile page on Facebook I naturally chose a picture I thought were flattering. Of course I did not list my not so flattering characteristics. But is it possible to narrate an identity on Facebook that is far form your real identity?

The identity one present on Facebook will be created different from the one presented off line, mainly due to the lack of body (Zhao et. al. 2008). Zhao et al. (2008) claim that people present their ideal self on Facebook. This might not bear any importance. Back et al. (2009) showed that the profile pages gave real life like impressions of the self of the user. There were no signs of self-idealizing. This was consistent with what Vazire & Gosling observed in 2004. They found that people do get a precise and reasonably correct impression of a person´s personality when viewing their personal website. There is no reason that this should not also apply to Facebook profile pages.

This may be due to the fact that users of Facebook for the most part state their identity implicitly instead of presenting it explicitly (Zhao et al., 2008). This means that the users show their identity trough their interests, pictures, links, fan sites and who their friends are (Liu, 2007). These expressions are important signals to other users about your identity (Liu, 2007). This is maybe also more difficult to narrate over time than explicit content.

But experimenting with ones identity can also be benefiting. Valkenburg & Peter (2009) found that lonely adolescence between 10 and 17 years old improved psychologicaly when experimenting with their identity on net. This did notaffect their self concept unity.

5.2 Callenges in communication on Facebook

What information that is social acceptable and popular to publish are governed by both formal and informal rules and limits. The formal structures are the same for all users of the Facebook network and are listed at “ Statement of rights and responsibilities” (Facebook, 2010b). But the informal rules are governed by what the individual user at any time perceives as a collective consensus. We have social rules for how we behave in different social contexts such as work, friendship circles and family life. Knowledge of these rules is necessary for us to create good relationships with our colleagues, friends and family and as a consequence we behave differently in different social settings. Similarly, we will be able to communicate differently with our relations in the various social networks we participate in.

But common to all communications with other users in social networking sites is the desire mutual communication and response. This could be highly motivating for what the user is going to publish. Ferguson (2001) describes how today’s society favours the sharing of emotions and intimacy in relationships. In today’s reflexive modern society, Ferguson claims, we have to create our lives and our identity through our choices and our communication with other`s. This includes a risk for the individual to fail. This failure can have major consequences. This can also apply to communication via social networking sites. As we have seen the way we communicate creates an implicit image of our identity for others to see. According to Ferguson (2001) communication today will require a sharing of emotions and intimacy. User communication on Facebook or Twitter, therefore, involves a risk for the user of revolving emotions and intimate information with a possible result as not being liked or respected.

This is also connected to the risk of being emotionally exploited or harassed on social networks. This is also called cyber-bullying or cyber-harassment (Smith et al., 2008). One of the most devastating cases is the suicide of Megan Meier (Ruedy, 2008). The 13-year Megan was a user of the social network site Myspace, which has many of the same functions as Facebook. She communicated with a 16 year old boy called Josh there and this communication finally led to her committing suicide. Megan had developed emotionally positive connective communication with Josh, but the days before the suicide Josh had started sending messages like “The world would be a better place without you”. She already suffered from depressions but it is regarded that the communication with Josh pushed her over the edge. Later it was revealed that Josh was an online factionary alias created by a 47 year neighbour and her employee. Josh was created so the 47 year old could find out how Megan felt about her daughter.

This case led to a wide discussion over the laws connected to bullying and harassment on the net (Ruedy, 2008). The creators of Josh had done nothing illegal. But the case had consequences for them. Angry people used Internet too find out who they were and posted full names on the net so everybody knew who they were.

Bullying and harassment are old problems but social network sites have some traits that make it very easy to use for these kinds of activities. One of these is that it is so quick and easy to post messages, but the other is that people seems to easier share emotionally content on the net than in real life contexts (Ruedy, 2008; McKenna, 2009).

The survey done by McKenna et al. (2002) showed that people that revealed emotional content benefited from it by easier connected friendships. The desire to achieve response or popularity may therefore lead the user to try to convey more intimacy than that person would do in an offline setting. It’s been shown that people have a tendency to more easily speak about emotions and difficult topics online than offline (McKenna et al., 2002). But the user do not know for sure how such intimate revelations are perceived by other users until after they are communicated. The probable success of the revelation can only be estimated before it is communicated by having a well-developed knowledge of the social rules of participation in social networking sites. Social intelligence and consciousness are thus even more necessary for communication on the Internet than in other social contexts. Especially because a statement made on a social network site quickly can be spread to very many people, which quickly can spread it further to their networks.

In his book Here comes everybody, Clay Shirky (2008) gives a good example of the power in social networking. A girl forgot her telephone in a cab in New York. Instead of returning the phone to the owner the cabdriver gave the phone to his sister. The owner of the phone found, with help of the network company a way to ask the beholder of the phone to have it back. She refused. A friend of the owner decided to help her. He made a blog were he wrote about the missing phone and what they knew about the girl who had it. He then used his networks to spread links to the blog. People got engaged by the story and started helping him. After a few days they knew the name and address of the girl, had pictures of her living space, her Myspace page etc. In the end the police, after pressure, arrested the girl and the phone owner got her phone back. This could not have happened without Internet and social networks.

The story does also illustrate one of the ethical aspects of social network. Through the use of social networks the social consequences for the sister who did not want to give the phone back to the owner was very tough. A lot of people found it acceptable to engage themselves in her behaviour and to condemn her directly in a way that would be unacceptable in other social settings. If you listen to a conversation between strangers on the bus you know it is not social acceptable if you engage in the conversation. On social networks you are invited to take part in any personal discussion.

Another common risk is the communication style of social networking sites. On Facebook and Twitter the communication often is expected to be more informal, personal and fun than in many other contexts. Especially in public affairs, this can be risky. In the workplace or in political contexts, such informal statements can provide undesirable consequences for the user. There have been several cases lately where remarks on Twitter or Facebook have had major consequences for the person who uttered them. A search on google for people who lost their jobs over a remark on Facebook yealds a lot of results like Ashley Johnson, who lost her job over one Facebook remark (Frazier, 2010). She worked as a waiter at a Pizza restaurant. After a long night she complained on her facebook about the guests, posting this remark: «Thanks for eating at Brixx, you cheap piece of —- camper». The next day her boss called and fired her. This is a good example of how the borders between what is regarded as private and public remarks and information is blending on Internet.

Similarly, one can imagine funny comments between two colleagues. The next day the comments are displayed on the front page of the local paper. Had the conversation occurred in during lunch break in a real world setting most likely it would not have had any consequences.

Other examples are pictures on Facebook that have been used to reveal the use of alcohol where this was illegal and to reveal insurance fraud (Masnick, 2009). Facebook comments may be used in court cases to create an image of foul play. In retrospect, an innocent comment can look completely different than it did the moment it was pronounced. One can also imagine situations where a user can be manipulated to give a statement that is intended to be used as evidence in a later context.

Many companies therefore introduce policies for their employees using social media. For companies who rely on keeping a good relation to the consumers, employees that are talking bad about the company can be damaging.

Yet another risk is that information may be spread very wide and uncontrolled by what is called viral spread of information. The story of Kate’s party hoax is a good example. (Ramadge, 2010) A man named David Thorne created an event on Facebook for the birthday party of a lady called “Kate Miller”. It seemed that this event was by mistake made open to everyone. Thorne pretended to have come across the event by accident and sent a link to his Twitter followers asking them to attend for fun. More than 60 000 people attended the event on facebook. In addition a lot of spinoff groups was created – for instance a group for the people who would help cleaning after Kate’s party.

Thorne is quoted to have said:

“It is important, regardless of individual privacy settings, to treat all information that you include on these social networking sites as completely public and include personal information appropriately”.

5.3 Different social environments at the same place

A network on a social network site like Facebook can include people from many of our real world social environments. In our daily lives, the majority of us participate in a lot of different social settings. We are in a family, we are at work or go to school, we often have several different groups of friends, we have neighbours, etc. In each of these social setting, we behave according to different norms and rules, and we put on our different «faces». As my list of friends showed all of these social context comes together to one on Facebook.

What the user is telling his girlfriend, he does not necessarily tell his mother. And what we say in a context, we can ask «to be between us.» It can be told to others. But on Facebook it can be redistributed with a push on a button there and then.

When all the social groups or context we participate is together in the same forum everybody can read all our postings . What he is writing on the wall to his girlfriend, his mother, the boss, neighbour or colleague might read. So sites like Facebook forces us to relate to all social groups in our life the same way. We cannot behave and talk differently to our mother and our friends. Mom might be friends with your friends on Facebook and see the party pictures posted of you by them. And even if you to a certain extent can control, via privacy settings, who can read or see what information about you, you cannot totally control the information flow.

One of my Facebook friends, a girl of 12 years one day was very upset. She had posted a link to a video of a pop singer she liked. Her Grandma had commented this in a way that the 12 year old felt very embarrassing. All the friends in her school class read the wall posting. Also those who liked to tease her. Thus, Grandma’s attempts at a funny comment ended up as a source of bullying for the grandchild. Had the statement arrived in the private room it would have ended there and not had the same consequences. So the use of social site can make the granddaughter the big laugh of the class.

Not only do we get all our social groups in one place on Facebook, but many feel they can not turn down friends request on Facebook. Examples are teachers who receive requests from their students. People you really do not want to have social contact with, or wish to have access to information about one’s daily life. There are ways to group users that makes it possible to limit their access, but this may also feel rude. So you let them be there and after some time forgetting that they are there, and regret it the day you say something they should not have known.

5.4 Privacy on Facebook

During the years Facebook has changed the possibilities to limit the people who can view the content of your profile page trough privacy settings (Opsahl, 2010). From being a very restricted network it has made the users communications more and more open. Today it is complicated to set up privacy, and some information it is not possible to keep private (Opsahl, 2010 Facebook, 2010c). Information about name, profile photo, list of friends and fan-sites are public information and can only be restricted by not being visible for search engines. Also using applications will reveal information about you to third part companies (Opsahl, 2010). Although one can restrict the visibility of ones private content it is a good rule that Thorne gave (Ramadge, 2010) to regard all information you put on your Facebook account as potential public information.

Discussions about and implications of privacy setting possibilities on Facebook is a to wide-ranging field and is to extensive to be examined here.

6. Conclusion

Facebook has become a common and well suited channel for communication. The usage of Facebook is a good tool for maintaining one’s social capital, networks and nurturing friendships. Being a user of social networks can be very positive. It may also be used to make new acquaintances. Online friendships are formed easier then in real world and are stable and long-lasting.

But the use of such media lead to increased risk for the user, when the user, or others in his network, publishes information about him. Cyber-bullying and harassment is easily done and spread at social networks. The possible viral spread of information on the net is enhancing the risk factors.

This risk may be limited if the user has a good understanding of the formal and informal rules and limits that apply to social network sites. The user must be aware of the consequences different types of information might have both private and in public. The limits of what is regarded private and public are blurred on Internet.

The same applies to companies present on social network sites. Employees writings about the company can be damaging or promoting for the company.

Although the user, by means of technical solutions, to a certain extent may limit access to his online profiles, this limitation will never be complete.

It is still to early to tell how usage of Facebook as a communication channel will lead to changes in Society. It is important that we engage in and monitor these changes to limit the negative effects.

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