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Facebook defies negative spin


We’ve seen Facebook’s remarkable growth statistics and we’ve read sceptical remarks in the media. But how do real people actually use Facebook?

When a Facebook friend objected to a video of an echidna’s penis being posted to her wall, she hesitated about asking writer Meika Samorzewski to remove it.

“Asking me to do it was an issue for her,” says Hobart-based Samorzewski, 43. “The experience was such that posting videos is quite fraught.” Only the person posting a video to the wall – a space on the friend’s profile page – could remove it.

It’s cases like these that cause people to leave Facebook. But is there more to social networking than trivial pursuits?

Many commentators take a negative slant on Facebook. A sample of recent mentions shows the extent of Facebook’s image problem. Using Facebook represents “the depths of inanity” and “teenage behaviour”. It is “useless”, full of “weird little messages”, a place where a “weirdo” kid can become a “Facebook addict”. It’s a “repository of yoof culture”, a “maddening addiction” where we are “in thrall to the information loop”.

In the race for eyeballs that pits one social networking site against another, Facebook currently holds first place (though others are visible in the distance, which may explain Facebook’s recent redesigns). In 2007, Facebook was still operating out of an office above an Indian restaurant. Facebook is now valued at US$10 billion, according to a recent Dow Jones report. The website has over 300 million users who exchange a billion pieces of content a week.

It is this speed that makes commentators scramble to explain its popularity, but users themselves make no apologies for enjoying the experience.

Memorable Facebook moments often relate to family and real-life friends, such as the “lovely notes of condolence” Althea Katz received when her husband died.

People also maintain connections through Facebook’s chat feature. Marina Lobastov, 31, recently relocated to Canberra and likes to know her friends are just beyond her screen. “I have had fights over chat, made up over chat, abused over chat and had amazing support over chat,” she says.

“I usually chat to about three people during the week if they are on when I’m on,” writes Melbourne children’s book author Matt Butler, 27. “If someone comes on and chats to me if I’ve had a bad day then that usually cheers me up.”

Travel consultant Karen Davies, 45, mostly uses Facebook for family and friend updates. Help desk officer Jock Wheeldon, 35, relies on it to let old friends find him. But what is a Facebook ‘friend’ beyond a number in your friend count?

Lobastov is selective about her friends.

“They either have to have a good reason or engage me in sufficiently interesting conversation for an extended period of time.”

“I’d try and check out a few of their details and if they seemed OK then I’d accept them,” writes Butler. Software developer Tim Booth, 39, would be more likely to accept them if he had a friend in common and could see where they fit “into the overall scene”.

Simply put, people have rules they follow when negotiating online spaces. Without them, communication in cyberspace would be chaotic and pointless.

But are the tabbing, tweaking, clicking, checking, linking, liking, posting and perusing just part of a self-absorbed quest for attention by lonely people?

Facebook can be a valuable connection tool, says Rory Murray, director of UK firm Atholl Consulting. “For some, it’s purely a social tool. For others, it’s a critical aspect of their online marketing and promotion.

“People using it personally or socially will go from extremely cautious about their online persona and data, and restrict connections to well-known people, on one extreme, to networking ‘sluts’ at the other extreme who are prepared to connect with absolutely anyone.”

Reuters global editor for multimedia Chris Cramer says social networking should be embraced by the media. “It’s the future of information flow. No media is going to be the gatekeeper. Audiences are not going to sit there and be handed tablets of stone.”

But Cramer notes the “chatter, chaff and stuff available” that is drowning out conventional media. While agreeing that the level of trust enjoyed by the media is at an all-time low, he points to netizens’ “continuous partial attention”.

“Most audiences want to move forward and have an influence on the outcome,” says Cramer. He notes that some of his colleagues “are terrified” of social networking sites like Facebook. “They twitter for a day, don’t see the point, then leave.”

A recent survey by the American Press Institute found that 24 percent of news executives did not use social media to broadcast stories. Only 50 percent used Facebook to provide access to stories.

“I’ve certainly seen some sort of dismissive comments made about Facebook,” says Theresa Anderson, senior lecturer in creative practices at the University of Technology, Sydney. “But I’ve also seen other pieces in the press where there has been a recognition that social networking is a presence.”

She puts a lot of this down to the generation gap. “I think a lot of times the use of some of these newer media tools, like social networking sites, is seen as in the domain of a younger generation.”

She also believes that people who aren’t involved in social networking try to find ways to justify their exclusion. This can take the form of an attack.

“I think that in the current climate, given the sort of situations we’re dealing with in terms of a global financial crisis, given the number of changes in the online world in the last five years, it’s a lot for us to take in.”

Irrespective of how people feel about it, Facebook works for millions of avid users who check their feed first thing in the morning and last at night. “Facebook? Big tick,” says Reuters’ Cramer.

We’ll say no more about the echidna penis video. In any case, Facebook has changed the interface so that wall owners can clean up themselves. Big tick.

Matthew da Silva writes feature stories to fulfil a dream after working in communications and technical writing roles for two decades. He grew up in Sydney, lived in Japan for nine years and now lives on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland. He blogs daily at Happy Antipodean.