Circle of friends and faces


With online social networking still continuing to grow, James Fagan questions some of the developments in popular website Facebook.

THE ODDS ARE that unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of years you have heard of Facebook. The social networking website was founded in 2004 and currently boasts over 175 million active members, a market value between 3 and 5 billion dollars and an international headquarters here in Dublin. It has seen a membership surge in Ireland in the last few years thanks to its user-friendly controls, applications and its popularity overseas. However the question posed is, despite its popularity, is it actually a useful website?

No doubt one of the great benefits of Facebook is that it allows you to keep in contact with your friends. Nobody can disagree that it feels great to suddenly find a long lost friend through the website. Yet in reality it doesn’t work that easily. It seems more and more profiles are seeing their friend numbers rise steadily as people readily accept new friends. However, once the number of friends goes up how easy is it to actually stay in touch with them?

In February, the Economist ran an article that reported on the size of social networks. Of note was reference to the Dunbar hypothesis which argues that there is a theoretical upper limit to the number of people in a social group the human brain can cope with. This number, rounded to 150 has become known as ‘the Dunbar number’. Yet with users’ profiles generally reaching over that number, up into the hundreds and sometimes over 1000, it is highly unlikely that they get the full benefit from Facebook. These high numbers of people make it virtually impossible to keep track of everyone, let alone remember who they are.

How is it that one can keep in touch with one’s close friends easily if the homepage is being cluttered up with updates and posts from people they barely know? Maybe you only met once, on a night out when maybe you were ‘tired and emotional’ but somehow that makes them your friend and eligible to connect with you online.

What appears to be happening is that people are just accepting people for the sake of it and bloating their profiles. Just because someone is in your college course of 300 people and has a mutual friend doesn’t really mean that you should accept their request.

“For all its pitfalls the site does serve a deep human requirement. It allays our fears of being alone”

Facebook is also interesting in that it has embraced the new found craze of micro-blogging through status updates. Micro-blogging is a form of blogging, popularised by Twitter, which consists of short and usually done on the go from a mobile phone. It allows people to sprout off what they are thinking right there and then quickly. Sounds somewhat cool but it certainly is not.

What has happened is that people are constantly updating their status to let everyone know where they are, what they are doing, what they are thinking and even what they are eating. What is the point in letting people know what is going on with every second of your life? Your life is just not that interesting all of the time.

It is as if people are trying to fulfil a need they have – a need for people to take interest in them and every inch of their lives. Yet if it is notoriety or interest that you want to garner you are probably better off in actually writing a real blog. At least then you can let more of your personality and reason shine through, more so than you can in a single line comment. I doubt Perez Hilton would have received such fame if his blogs consisted of just one line entries.

For all the fun that Facebook offers it does have a sinister side in that it can lead to the undoing of a person. Last month an Essex teenager was fired from the marketing firm at which she worked for comments made on her Facebook profile. She had commented about her job being boring. When her boss saw this she was immediately let go. The firm justified its position saying her “disrespect and dissatisfaction” made their working relationship untenable. It is fair to assume that a firm would not take lightly that it is being bad mouthed publicly by one of its own employees.

That incident is an example of how far reaching our comments on Facebook can go. It just takes a slip of the tongue and things could come crashing down around you. In the United States firms have been known to search job applicants profiles in order to double check résumés and perform background checks. How would you feel if you lost a job because a firm didn’t exactly approve of certain activities you allude to in your info pages or updates? Suddenly your large friend network or status updates doesn’t seem that appealing any more.

Most people who try to stop using the site eventually come back to it because for all its pitfalls the site does serve a deep human requirement. It allays our fears of being alone. It allows us to be in constant contact with those we consider friends in all parts of the globe, it allows us to share memories and organise events. As such it is no wonder that the site is so addictive, even though at face value it seems to be pointless a collection of photos and text comments.

No doubt as years go buy the site will continue to improve and hopefully people will use common sense in what they say and who they accept. We don’t know what the years ahead will hold for the site, but the implications in the future of a world always connected at a personal level will be interesting to behold, and it is all thanks to Facebook.