Seán Healy | Senior Staff Writer
What would life be to you if you were the only creature in the universe? What would it be to you if you lived in an ocean, perhaps not alone, but unheard by all the busy fish? These were not such absurd questions for many of us when we first became members of an online society originally marketed as a book of faces for adults who forget to stay in touch.
Everyone experiences some deficiency of self-esteem at various points in life. We come into the world crying, having never before experienced affection or attention. We continue to cry in infancy unless held, rocked, shown interest. By our teenage years, we have become proud, and judging ourselves as soon to be adult, we don’t explicitly show a need for attention, but we still seek it. This passive-aggressive approach, exemplified by early, unprompted selfies on the public web, often fails. The world wises up, screeching: “Attention seeker, compliment fisher, Bebo stunnah!”
By 2009, the fad of childish social platforms was running thin in Ireland. Our self-esteem was still low, and our years of happy faces crouched over the crib were long gone. Out of the classy blue and white, no glittery themes, came the saviour from Harvard, America. We had lost our hot milk before bed. Our teachers had harshened towards us in maturity. Bebo had been evacuated in mortification; there came the successor to the throne of the great vanity of western life – Facebook.
Bebo had been evacuated in mortification; there came the successor to the throne of the great vanity of western life – Facebook.
You start by listing everything about yourself. Being asked your name, phone number and birthday, even by an online form, can make you feel like someone is mildly interested in you. This effect is profound if you’re a hormonal teenager in too many feuds with friends and family to be called by your first name on a regular basis. Facebook always calls you by your first name, and it will always remember your birthday. But you do eventually realise Facebook does not love you. Facebook knows you realise this, and so it offers you the (sort-of) friendship of creatures like you – providing you use its platform to communicate. Facebook will never advise you to leave its platform and go outside. You could accidentally remember that it’s been a while since you’ve actually felt like a real human.
People often dither about Facebook layout changes. There is a simple yet hushed reason why the staff of the social network ignore the disgusted outcry of many. Looking at an image of the site from 2004, there is no doubt it would fail to measure up to the styles of its counterparts today. Each minor change Facebook adopts is a requirement of a business obligated to sustain innovation to remain cool. If things slow down and projected growth isn’t met, changes are made, and each one of these changes has a creepy foundation in the psyche of its users. One of the first tweaks was the introduction of the ‘relationship status’. Students immediately took to this impersonal data field like thirsty noncommunicating camels at an oasis of romantic clarification.
If things slow down and projected growth isn’t met, changes are made, and each one of these changes has a creepy foundation in the psyche of its users. One of the first tweaks was the introduction of the ‘relationship status’. Students immediately took to this impersonal data field like thirsty noncommunicating camels at an oasis of romantic clarification.
As the social network progressed, and as people started mashing the ‘like’ button more routinely, the currency of the ego unit became greatly inflated, and by 2011, Facebook had introduced a similar feature for comments. Now a comment on a self-brandishing status could receive ‘likes’ of its own. People commented more, but things still weren’t moving quickly enough, so Facebook introduced the sidebar – a feature that rests permanently on the screen of your Facebook web page, publicly displaying the current activity of all your connections while also displaying a list of people with whom you might like to converse.
One of the platform’s tendencies in ranking this list prompts some worrying questions. After scrolling extensively through someone’s profile, without even contacting them too often, a day or two later, Facebook is shoving their name in your face, on the sidebar, in the search bar. It seems that the company has some way of figuring out who you fancy. Then once more showing its excellent knowledge of the young, self-conscious mind, Facebook starts to subtly goad you into making contact. Who needs friends or a patronising wingman when you have Facebook?
Who needs friends or a patronising wingman when you have Facebook?
Once you add all your peers (and some of their peers) you begin to see the numbers rise. Friend counts, like counts, pokes (or pokes not returned), comments of support on your recent statuses all come from people with whom you rarely speak in person. These things do count to you, otherwise Facebook wouldn’t implement them. Mark Zuckerberg often states that he attempts to take applications and media to a social context, and that’s why Facebook succeeds over more bare technologies like email and blog. While logged in, when something changes, it is brought to your immediate attention through a web page that constantly updates and checks all those statistics revolving around you. You don’t need to compulsively refresh the page anymore. Everything is comfortingly fluid for an audience on-edge, constantly subconsciously seeking appraisal.
Scroll through the Facebook statuses of people you know, and you will find a large portion of humour; many seem to use Facebook primarily as a platform for comedy. You think of a funny joke or witticism, you post it on Facebook, you get the likes, you feel warm and fuzzy inside, you repeat. Think of a goal, chase it, achieve it, feel good, repeat – this is routine for a lot of people (myself included). If the goal is something with no other benefit than a feeling, then what you have is often compulsion, and unlike a single coffee sitting by a student in a lecture hall, what some of us have with Facebook can negatively impact our lives. There the compulsion should be recognised as what it truly is: an addiction.
You think of a funny joke or witticism, you post it on Facebook, you get the likes, you feel warm and fuzzy inside, you repeat.
It’s not necessarily an addiction that is guaranteed to ruin your life. Facebook is mostly fun and games, but there’s something serious happening in the background. Last week I took part in a psychological study that required abstaining from Facebook from 7AM until 5PM. I had an interview scheduled that evening and there were moments during the day when I craved the confidence boost of online attention.
There were points where I typed ‘face’ into my web browser only to remember I could not complete the word. I noted the thoughts immediately preceding this impulse: apprehension over the interview, the fear over some embarrassing nights out from weeks before, wondering what people are saying, and if any of it is about me. These moments were short, and nothing that I would consider a major problem for me personally, but they were very real feelings and, where seven years ago we may have fallen asleep at night with these thoughts manifesting themselves in minorly unpleasant dreams, today a lot of us stay awake and suck at the adult baby-bottle that is Facebook.
Illustration by Seán Healy for The University Times