Having one’s Facebook cake and eating it, too

Sean Bonner: Facebook makes me feel like a shitty friend.

Facebook made it easy. So now I have to wonder am I only staying in touch with those people because it requires absolutely zero effort on my part? What kind of a person does that make me? What does that say about how much I value their friendship?

Earlier this month I found out about a friend’s wife giving birth via Facebook, and only Facebook. It’s not the first time this has happened (indeed, not even the first time with this friend). And, to use Bonner’s turn of phrase, it made me feel kind of shitty.
Social media sites are wondrous things. I am in touch with more people in infinitely more ways than I ever expected. The problem lies with scale and distance, as the same interactions that feel immediate to the author can feel very different to the reader–both more and less intimate than originally intended, depending on the recipient. What Bronner and I are observing is less technological than sociological: replacing important real-life touchpoints with digital ones can be inherently, and inadvertently, disappointing.
Social interactions have myriad levels of nuance. Facebook is different from Twitter, for example. Email distribution lists remain popular alongside social networks (for my demographic, at least). And each type of action carries its own etiquette. Checking into the hospital on Foursquare and tweeting the delivery of a child can be fascinating and energizing and fun. Extreme example: Matt Haughey live-tweeted his vasectomy! But the same broadcast capabilities that bring levity to such things also defy conventional levels of friendship. When inner-circle, 20-years-of-history friends post the same birth notice to you as to 680 of their digital connections, that inner circle takes on a much flimsier feel. (Let the record show that in each case of “hey, I saw on Facebook that you’re a dad now,” I replied with a phone call.)
I rediscovered Bonner’s post because yesterday he quit Facebook altogether. I don’t think I’m in quite that drastic a frame of mind. My own Facebook usage is quite minimal: after all, if you’re concerned about privacy on Facebook, limiting what you tell Facebook goes a long way toward mitigating its pervasiveness. My profile there is no more robust than what you find about me on Twitter, LinkedIn, et al. with the exception of a handful of photos and some basic banter with my friends. My privacy settings are finely tuned. I can live with Facebook knowing and using that much about me.
And indeed, I almost need Facebook, because its wall has become many people’s primary mode of communication. I only log onto Facebook once a week or so, and when I’m gone for too long, I miss out on news of life-altering events. The privacy concerns are valid, sure, but many people have decided, however unwittingly, that they’re willing to live with the trade-offs of privacy and reach. And while I’d probably be fine not residing within the Facebook social graph, I don’t terribly want to dictate terms to my friends regarding how they keep in touch with me. So for now, they’ll post, I’ll call, and we’ll all go to bed happy.
Social media is an amazing tool. Even more so on one’s own terms.