January 13, 2005

Log off: The case against The FaceBook

Not long ago, when a guy or girl met someone at a party there was only one way to get to know them better: Ask for their number, hope they write down the right one, and pray for a callback. Today 20- and 30-somethings are just as likely to ask, "Are you on Friendster or The Facebook?"

Two of the hottest places young professionals and students learn about each other nowadays is through the online communities Friendster and The Facebook, websites where users create autobiographical home pages, link them to their friends, and exchange messages with one another. The Facebook is geared towards college students, and like its mainstream counterpart Friendster, boasts thousands of members nationwide. If you haven't heard of either site yet, you're probably outside their target demographic (35 and under); without Internet access; or a hopeless, Ted Kaczynski-like loner.

Friendster and The Facebook channel a spirit similar to the one that fueled Howard Dean's groundbreaking campaign Meet-ups. Strangers united by a common cause, interest, or acquaintance use the Internet to interact with one another, exchanging everything from party invitations to dating solicitations. Both programs share another commonality with Dean's infamous Meet-ups. Just as his online supporters failed to produce a single significant victory for him, leaving Dean alone at the altar on each election night, Friendster and The Facebook also betray their members.

The problem with these online networks is they substitute artificiality for authentic communication. The profiles users create are inherently unreliable representations of their true selves. Friendster and The Facebook turn average people into amateur photographers hell-bent on retouching their own likenesses until they are picture perfect. People spend hours photographing, editing, and manipulating digital headshots that misrepresent their everyday appearance and often their real age. Users construct false identities with words as well. As members write their own bios, many resort to listing popular books, movies, television programs, and quotations in an attempt to create a particular image: intellectual, hipster, punk, elitist, or rebel. Perhaps living in a consumer culture encourages people to market themselves as commodities, yet in doing so they deceive other members to their true individuality; they hide vulnerabilities as well as flaws.

Another flaw with Friendster and The Facebook is the compulsion of many users to link themselves to other profiles in order to overrepresent their number of friends. Colorful Friendster member "Chris Apollo," for instance seems exceptionally adored by the masses—288 Friendster friends and counting! It's hard to imagine this member not being popular, but how on Earth can he keep in touch with so many people? Furthermore, what does having that many "Friendsters" say about an individual's criteria for Friendstership? A close friend of mine, a Friendster junkie, will ask almost anyone he hits it off with at a party to join his Friendster list. He follows the same reasoning many online users do: A greater number of links to other people makes him appear better connected than he really is.

Friendster and The Facebook aren't just deceptive. They are also emerging threats to many American youths' emotional and psychological well-being. Besides limiting opportunities for emotional connection, community websites, combined with instant messaging and e-mail, stress young people's minds and generally speed up the pace of their lives. Like an over-produced video on Total Request Live, such sites disrupt people's concentration by saturating their brains with an orgy of useless information and false images, taxing their minds with too much text and tempting them to stay online to click on yet another member's profile. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Carnegie Mellon University who studied Internet use found that as students spent more time online they exhibited feelings of isolation, mood disorders, and chemical imbalances. Their findings parallel the American Psychological Association's report that frequent Internet use can lead to a pathological addiction similar to gambling. Of course only the most painfully shy, antisocial, or insecure prefer typing fragments of text to talking and may skew the survey's results. It's evident however that online meeting places, which bill themselves as bringing separate lives together, actually marginalize some people further from society.

For many users, Friendster and The Facebook are simply modern-day work-ups of the classic "Kevin Bacon" game: Users get the cheap thrill of seeing how many degrees separate one life from another. And as addicts are prone to do, it's easy to scapegoat such sites for the social ills of urban alienation. Yet by presenting friendship in such a contrived, artificial environment, Friendster and The Facebook represent a negative trend in young urban social life with potentially damaging consequences to their users' mental health.

Friends don't let friends use Friendster.