“Poking” the Personal Bubble: College & Facebook
Professor Tom Boellstorff
Foreword by the Authors
Facebook is integral to the college experience in that it affects and boosts the social aspect of adolescent networking. Effectively, the widespread use of Facebook adds to all aspects of the classic model of college education outside of classes; in novel social experience, the cultivation of interpersonal relationships, romantic settings, and the diction and dialect of culture and communication.
Chapter I: Facebook Etiquette
[et-i-kit - noun]
According to Britannica Online, etiquette relates to “conventional requirements as to social behavior; proprieties of conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion.” Though the idea of social networking sites is to provide an opportunity to meet and sustain personal as well as professional contacts, etiquette plays a significant role in the social networking arena. Facebook, created principally to offer an online alternative to social networking, revolves around requesting and adding “friends,” essentially personal and/or professional contacts, and then maintaining such connections through wall-posts, and messages, in addition to commenting on current statuses as well. Facebook etiquette mainly entails respect on the part of responding and corresponding to the aforementioned forms of communication, i.e. wall-posts, messages, notes, as well as commenting on statuses and pictures. Facebook members are expected to have a sense of etiquette in order to be a respectable, principled online citizen. However, it is a proven fact that Facebook members do not strictly abide by the unspoken etiquette of online communication, especially when there is such a surplus of salacious information at one’s disposal. Though there are no formal consequences for not having the proper etiquette, or breaking certain online policies, the probability of disapproval, ruin, and shame by fellow Facebook members overrides the fear of breaching Facebook etiquette.
The wide variety of opportunities Facebook offers, such as uniting one’s personal and professional life, also presents a method of breaching Facebook etiquette. Etiquette plays a significant role in how one approaches Facebook overall, and as well as how one considers and perceives the online pictures, applications, status updates, as well as comments on one’s Facebook wall. Genuinely maintaining and strictly abiding by a code of conduct is rather complex, and cannot be monitored due to the evolving state of such networking sites. Before the creation of Mini-Feed, violating Facebook etiquette consisted of “poking” people one barely knew, memorizing one’s personal information, in addition to religiously checking new uploaded photos, and reading people’s wall posts, and their wall-to-wall conversations with other ‘interesting’ contacts. After the launch of Mini-Feed, there was an immense infringement of privacy and etiquette with the amount of personal choices individual members were making in regards to their attendance to an event, their acceptance into a group, their posts to mutual friends, or the recently tagged perhaps not-so-innocent pictures from the party the night before. When twenty college-aged students were interviewed, approximately 60% of students admitted to browsing other profiles based solely on what appeared on Mini-Feed upon each login to Facebook. The little snippets of news allows a breach of privacy on part of the individual, and a breach of etiquette if one engages in investigating the pictures, or looking into details of the event that their friend declined to attend, etc. As per Hal Niedzviecki’s “Facebook in a Crowd1,” “I would learn, when I asked some people who didn’t show up the next day, that ‘definitely attending’ on Facebook means ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe attending’ means ‘likely not.’ So I probably shouldn’t have taken it personally.” However, people do seem to be affected by such event invitations…especially if they were not invited, leading them explore into the event, probing into who was invited, and who wasn’t. The insecurities that surface due to immense stalking or “Facebooking” are simply due to a lack of etiquette, whether it be posting many pictures with the opposite gender, putting up any pictures that might “alienate one’s audience,” according to Kristin Dixson, a contributing writer to CIO.com, a business technology and leadership site.
The allure of Facebook draws members in, and soon, members are posting more information that necessary to perhaps increase their contacts, but how much is too much? Posting too much is the key to commit a breach of etiquette. As an interviewee admits, “There's nothing about Facebook itself that I hate. But, I do hate a major side affect of Facebook: the side affect of feeling rejected. I mean, there is a lot of potential for rejection. Someone could not write you back, someone could not accept your friend request, someone could unfriend you. It's a delicate situation.” Plenty of people have had fights and broken up with their significant others because of Facebook, either based on what one has read one someone’s wall, the scandalous pictures that pop-up on Mini-Feed, or because of their significant other adding a “friend” based solely on their physical appearance. As per Clive Thompson’s “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy2”, there are rules. “'I either have to know who you are, or I have to know of you.’ That means she monitors the lives of friends, family, anyone she works with.” However, one may easily breach this rule, and therefore have a lack of etiquette by having access to many other profiles in their own network. Overall, Facebook is a useful tool if handled correctly. The site allows networking opportunities and the ability to keep in touch with family members and friends out of state as well as overseas. Disregarding Facebook etiquette leads to disrespecting privacy within the public domain. Facebook is meant to help people keep in touch, and thus far, plays a fundamental role in society, acting as an intermediary step between the physical and online worlds.
Chapter II: Facebook as an Intermediary Social Step
When it was first developed, Facebook struck a chord in an Internet that was making interconnectivity a very real notion. As people yearned to immerse themselves in a world of online peers, Facebook evolved with the pack, creating a space where contact was constant and the ethereal online notion of self was spread across the world. Naturally, with all these effects appearing and flourishing, the place where Facebook still hits the hardest is the area which it was originally formulated for use: college. Especially now, the notion of online socializing is ingrained into the minds at the University of California, Irvine, where Facebook is used not only to keep in contact with old friends, but also to create new relationships. The question addressed in this section, however, is where exactly Facebook fits into the social process. From data and personal experience our group offers the following hypothesis: even in a world where society is becoming increasingly digitized, and even with a generation that embraces technology as definite progress, Facebook is merely a social tool and never a replacement for socializing. It follows that culturally speaking, online social networking via Facebook, however integral it is to the college experience, is just a step added in the traditional manner of meeting friends and building a relationship with them.
The first step of analysis is a look at how people utilize Facebook. Just looking at the front page lists copious amounts of features that the site has acquired over the last few years; the range of usage is broad, from simply sending private messages to a single person, to orchestrating a massive event that requires RSVP. The most basic of features is that which has inherited its own verb: “friending3” others. Once this contact is established, both parties have free reign to peer into the lives of the other via profile. In this way, Facebook also succeeds as a tool for those who wish to keep in contact with others in a quick and casual way. If further action is desired, Facebook can also be the conduit for more social individuals, allowing the chance of joining together, either in the virtual world for a mutual interest via the “Groups” function, or in the physical world for events that are planned through the “Events” function. In these ways, Facebook succeeds, and we would have sufficient proof to crown Facebook a social tool, but the interesting notion of where it fits pleads our careful attention. It is here where we must delve into where Facebook doesn’t work in social settings and why.
In order to more clearly see where exactly Facebook fails, we can look at an anecdote in the form of Hal Niedsviecki’s article, “Facebook in a Crowd”. In the opening paragraph, Niedsviecki states that he “was very close to having 700 online ‘friends’”, and goes on to list them as “cyberpals, connections, acquaintances, and even strangers”. Nowhere does he mention, however, anything about friends in the physical world. Rather, he highlights the social distance he feels from these people who are Facebook “friends”. By the end of the night, Niedsviecki is sharing an awkward experience with the only person who decided to attend his event, a stranger who came out of curiosity. So why did such a successful social networking site fail so tremendously in connecting the author with other members of the network? We can highlight two main points from this account.
The first issue lies in the depth of the relationship shared between “friends” on Facebook. One member of our group interviewed two current college students regarding this topic and they both replied with statements that highlighted Facebook as a tool for brief, impersonal contact. Sally, 20, uses the site to “drop someone a note quickly, say hi, etc.” and went on to say that she “doesn’t think Facebook should be used for any serious interaction ... that’s completely inappropriate.” Sammy, 22, echoed these sentiments, adding that “people seem distant, not personable” and more definitively that he “doesn’t believe in ‘cybering’,” the latter term referring to a process of building intimate and often sexual relationships online. Looking back at Niedviecki’s article, out of this 700 “friends,” no one who came was considered a close friend by him, which points us to the conclusion that Facebook is not a solid basis for forming close relationships with others.
The natural tendency after discovering Facebook’s failure to form deep relationships is to hypothesize that Facebook works the best for starting friendships, but this is disproved once again by the two students interviewed. Both were adamant in how “inappropriate”, “creepy”, and “weird” it is to “friend” a total stranger. Both interviewees even went on to clarify that it was necessary to meet the person “face to face” despite having, more often than not, the most important information accessible via profile. These sentiments are mirrored in Niedviecki’s article as an aura of awkwardness present in his conversation with Paula, the lone attendee of his event, since Paula was more or less a stranger to the author, only having added him through a mutual “friend”. After breaking the unsaid conventional boundaries regarding meeting people solely through Facebook, both parties found that the result was an uneasy conversation fueled only by curiosity and not by true friendship.
Both interviewed students found Facebook to be a tool to communicate with others; this fact itself is enough to qualify it as a social tool. Moreover, this social tool was aimed by students at other students, mediating the experience of college students in a largely internal matter. Further analysis of the interviews exposed two important facts about Facebook: first, that it is in no way an appropriate manner to build relationships past a certain point, and second, that it is not a tool used to initiate relationships of any kind. We can conclude from these findings that Facebook fits in between these two aspects of socializing as an intermediary step, especially in the blossoming social circle of the average college student.
Chapter III: Facebook & Romantic Relationships
While it has been used to connect millions of people under numerous networks, the unique phenomenon about Facebook has been ability to create a sense of community and togetherness, “It’s just like living in a village, it’s hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new.4”. Just as in any small town or village, Facebook has become a realm in which the romantic relationship cannot be kept a secret for long- made possible with the use of News Feed, the posting of Relationship Statuses on profiles, or the simple changing of a profile picture.
In this chapter, focus is placed on how Facebook plays a role in romantic relationships for college students through the experiences of two couples at the University of California, Irvine- a couple that has been together for only a few weeks and had met in their residential hall, Alice and Martin, and one in a long distance relationship, Robin who currently lives on campus, and George who lives in Northern California, where they both consider home. Another “couple” was also interviewed- Josh and Becca, who both changed their relationship statuses on their profiles to trick their friends into believing they were romantically involved. In speaking to all three of the couples, it seemed evident that there was a sense of importance in posting their relationship statuses. As we find in Mimi Ito’s piece, “Social network sites play an increasing role as couples become solidified and become what some call “Facebook official.” Teens might indicate relationship status by ordering their Facebook or MySpace friends in a particular hierarchy, changing the formal statement of relationship status, giving gifts, and displaying pictures. Youth can also signal the varying intensity of intimate relationships through new media practices such as sharing passwords, adding Friends, posting bulletins, or changing headlines. 5”
For Alice and Martin, posting that they were “In a Relationship” and having it posted on News Feed had been a big deal because it was as an act used to announce it to all of their hallmates. When I asked them why they decided to post their relationship statuses Alice responded, “It’s like the fastest and easiest way to tell everyone.” Thus, to them, publicly posting that they were in a relationship was the official way of announcing it to all their friends. It also gave them a chance to see what the response would be, “When we put it.. most of the people who responded or liked it were people in the hall who’ve got to know both of us,” Martin stated. And when I asked why they responded that way, Erin stated, “Probably because they care about us, and they’re all our friends, and just want us to be happy”.
For Robin and George, posting their relationship status on Facebook was not news to any of their network because they had joined Facebook and posted their status long after practically all of their friends and family had known that they were romantically involved. But, it was still important to both of them that they posted their relationship status, “I guess it means we’re serious. Or to say no one can hit on us”. This idea of possession or assuring that other people do not make moves on their significant others has also been shared by Martin who stated that his reason for posting his relationship status was, “So I could boast about having Alice as my arm candy”. The simple change of relationship status on one’s Facebook profile should change the dynamics of the social interactions they go through.
This change of dynamics could be seen in exploring Josh and Becca’s story. As Mimi Ito states, “The public nature and digital representations of these relationships require a fair degree of maintenance and, if the status of a relationship changes or ends, may also involve a sort of digital housecleaning that is new to the world of teen romance, but which has historical corollaries in ridding a bedroom or wallet of an ex-intimate’s pictures6” (17). In order to trick their friends into thinking they were romantically involved with each other, the two did just that, “digital housecleaning”. They changed their relationship status to indicate that they were “In a Relationship” with each other, their profile pictures to pictures with both of them hugging or with their arms around each other, and even their statuses to state things like “Josh is out with Becca”, all to make it believable to their friends. When asked what the response was, Becca said, “It was more in the physical world because we had a dinner with all our friends right after our ‘announcement’ and people were asking a lot more then.” And after the trick was over, there were still things they had to clear up, “I got questions about this long after the joke was over and we had taken it down”, proving that the long lasting impact that the posting of ones personal information on Facebook could have.
While relationship statuses on Facebook seem to be an essential step for college couples, it was surprising to learn about lack of importance placed on the use of Facebook to communicate with each other. When the two couples were asked if they were romantically involved what applications they use to communicate each other, both responded that they did not use any really. It seemed to be less intimate, Martin stated, “It’s really open, anyone we know can see what we are writing. I’d rather just call her or text. More convenient too.” When a member of our group asked George if it was a helpful tool for his relationship he responded, “I don’t really thinks so. I mean there is no serious talking or anything with our relationship in Facebook. I mean we comment each other a lot and stuff, but that’s only for inside joke stuff, or things that we might forget in the future. If Facebook did not exist, it wouldn’t hurt our relationship one bit”. While it is not used as a main form of communication, the communication does have an effect, for the couples, it would be considered forms of public displays of affection, “I really don’t mind what other people think about us. I mean we try to keep that kind of stuff to ourselves since we have no reason to say that kind of stuff in the public,” George explained. “There is this one couple where the girl leaves the guy a video comment like everyday. We are pretty disgusted by it, so we mock them.” Alice seemed to agree, “Well when you write something on Facebook, you’re not only writing it to that person- you’re writing it to the whole world. So, it’s as if you’re making out in front of everyone, only with words”.
Thus it seems like what Tufekci argues is valid, Facebook creates a community feel that could be comparable to that of a small village, and this proves very true for romantically involved college students. It is an essential social step for a couple to post their relationship statuses publicly, just as it is important for an engaged couple to make an announcement at their local church or newspaper. The couples also showed the care taken to make sure that they do not seem like they are publicly showing affection, as a couple who would be conscious of kissing or holding hands in the park would be. Overall, the phenomenon of the small town feel of Facebook helps form relationships between people but doesn’t necessarily stoke the flames of romantic relationships. Rather the dynamic of Facebook has become an essential social step in the initial process of cultivating deeper interpersonal relationships.
Chapter IV: Facebook & Proximity
Facebook as a Social-Networking Site among First and Second Year Undergraduate Students
At its founding in 2004, access to Facebook was limited to students, faculty, and staff in several U.S. colleges. The social networking site was available to high school students and incoming college first years when studying the role of Facebook among current first and second year undergraduate students, more so after 2006, when it was opened to everyone of ages 13+. Due to its ability to form and manage impressions, as well as maintain relationships, Facebook became increasingly appealing to researchers. In this section of the research project, the main focus was Facebook as a proximity-setter, an important facilitator of relationships, and an important tool for forming and managing impressions for first year students at UCI before and after moving into the residence halls. This section also emphasizes the role of Facebook and News Feed as an important incentive for second year students (who have previously lived in the residence halls) in keeping in contact with their friends and hallmates.
At UCI, first year housing is generally split into two housing communities: Dorm A and Dorm B, that are then split into residence halls, each holding approximately 50-80 students. During the summer before move-in, residents will receive a letter from the hall’s Resident Advisor. In addition, Resident Advisors will usually create a Facebook group for their hall so residents of the hall can join the group after receiving their housing assignment.
In the setup of this research project, proximity and relations between first year residents who currently live in the residence halls was gauged through a number of ways: how they judged each other through Facebook profile pictures and information (especially if residents joined and utilized the hall group to interact with others prior to moving in), expectations the residents had of the hallmates and of their hall based on viewing profiles, and how these expectations shaped their current experience in the hall. In addition, this section explores how Facebook helped their transition to the college environment, and how impressions and expectations formed online differ or are similar to impressions formed in person. Research for this portion of the project was conducted through four 14-question open-ended interviews carried out through phone and in person The interviewees, two male and two female residents, are current first year residents in Dorm A. Research on first year residents was conducted through the belief that Facebook is essential for first year students to become adjusted to the new college environment and form expectations and relationships. In addition, research was conducted through the belief that first year students largely utilize Facebook prior to moving to UCI by using the hall group’s functions to talk to or check the Facebook profiles of hallmates. Ultimately, these actions form expectations about their hallmates, roommates, and hall experience in general.
The second portion of this research project focused on second-year students who have previously lived in the residence halls and have now moved into other housing communities. Relations and proximity among second year students were gauged through how they have used Facebook to stay in contact with hallmates, friends, or Resident Advisor from their first year. In addition, this section focuses on the growth and changes of relationships, and how relationships among second years are maintained through Facebook. Research was conducted through four 7-question open-ended interviews done in person and through instant messaging due to time constraints. The interviewees, two male and two female residents, were former 2007-2008 residents in Dorm A. Research in this section was also conducted through the belief that second year students use Facebook commenting, News Feed, wall posts, and status updates to keep in contact with hallmates with whom they would not normally keep in contact with, as well as casually use Facebook to contact friends frequently. Facebook is believed to be more of an appropriate and convenient way of communication.
Out of the first year interviews, four out of the four interviewees responded that they had joined Facebook because they were “pressured into doing so”, because “everyone else was doing it”, and because they expressed concerns about being familiar with the site before moving to college. All four of the respondents also answered that they had joined Facebook prior to moving into the residence halls at UCI, three out of the four first years joined the hall Facebook group before moving into the actual hall, and one first year was not in the UCI network and did not join the group until the end of the first quarter. However, when questioned about their expectations or impressions of others from looking at the Facebook profile pages of their hallmates, all four of the interviewees reported that even though they joined the hall group, they did little to no surfing through other profiles. In fact, all four of the interviewees answered that they only looked at profile pictures, didn’t contact anyone in the hall other than their roommate, and didn’t build expectations of their hallmates because they believed that Facebook wasn’t an accurate representation of the person. Instead, all four of the respondents reported that they would much rather interact with their hallmates in person. One first-year reflected upon Facebook profiles: “…you can’t really base their personality off of their pages. Facebook is a way of communicating with other people, but some people have a clear distinction between online and the physical world.” Basically, the respondents believed that there should be limited online interaction until actually meeting in person. Another first year reported that she didn’t get too much of a sense of the hall from Facebook and all of the respondents had answered that the hall group only served as a way of remembering names and faces.
Based on the interviews, first year students would much rather meet and talk to their hallmates in person. Therefore, the thesis actually overestimates the importance of a hall Facebook group by assuming that most first years utilize the group to contact their hallmates and form expectations based off profiles. According to the Walther article7, new types of technology (i.e. Facebook) have changed the meaning of managing and forming impressions. The article states “The newest forms of online communication complicate matters in ways that are unique with respect to the kinds of information they offer for observers to draw impressions”, which is ultimately related to a “blend of interactive and static features in any one individual’s online ‘profile’”. In other words, while our thesis assumed that first years would largely utilize Facebook to communicate with their hallmates prior to move-in and form expectations of their hall and college experience based on their hallmates’ Facebook profiles, the first years actually see these profiles (which were assumed by the thesis to be reliable) as unreliable and not representative of the individual. The unreliability of Facebook profiles could ultimately be due to “secondhand descriptions” and interactive information on profiles that are posted by others (such as tagged photos, comments, and wall posts). In a nutshell, the interviewed first year students may have felt that in-person interactions are more meaningful than online interactions and that participation in social-networking sites may not be an accurate reflection of the character of the individual.
In the second portion of the research chapter, four second-years that have moved out of the residence halls were interviewed about the importance of Facebook in staying in contact with their hallmates from their first year and any changes in their relationships they may have experienced. All four of the respondents replied that Facebook didn’t play a huge role in communicating with old hallmates. In fact, they only used Facebook to perform wall posts and comment on photos and statuses, and reported that they only actively keep in touch with around 10-15 former hallmates they were close to. One of the former residents claimed that “…it’s more certain people because halls are really cliquey and the cliques go off in different directions and people in each clique stay in contact more than others.” In addition to wall posts and commenting, when questioned about any relationships from first year that are mainly Facebook-facilitated, three out of the four respondents replied that Facebook serves as an appropriate way of keeping in contact with hallmates. One second year said: “I don't really see anybody anymore. If I do talk to anyone from last year, it's only through Facebook. Our schedules are so different, and with work and school, Facebook and information through News Feed is pretty much our only way of communication.” Another replied: “My roommate was not the kind of person I would ever friend or hang out with if it weren't for the hall, being roommates, and Facebook...Since we ended the year on a good note, Facebook plays a big part in keeping in touch. Mainly we would drop each other a note if we see our names on News Feed...so we know that each other exists.”
Generally, the results and responses from the second year students supported the thesis—all four of the respondents believed that Facebook wall posts, commenting, and chat were appropriate and convenient ways of communication. Responses also supported the belief that the convenience of Facebook is an incentive to keep in contact with hallmates with whom they would normally not keep in contact with. In Thompson’s article8, many Facebook users don't realize that they would learn “things they would never have otherwise discovered through random surfing around Facebook” through the News Feed option.” One can infer that the “constant, up-to-the-minute updates” provided on the News Feed serves as an incentive for second year students to contact their old friends or hallmates whenever their names appear on the News Feed. A need for this sort of “incessant online contact” is known as “ambient awareness” by social scientists and may be the explanation for an unconscious hunger for updates on friends from the year before.
In conclusion, though Facebook was first started as social networking site, proximity still plays a deciding factor in the friendships that students make at the start of their college career. The fact that their “friends” are near them affects the students’ relationships with their hall mates. To many students nowadays, Facebook is seen as a pastime to get a glimpse of the lives of people they are/were close to. The research portion of this project showed that we had overestimated the role Facebook in the formation of friends in the college housing communities. Upon move out from the communities, as distance between the students grow, and schedules begin to differ, students find themselves relying more and more on Facebook to keep in nominal contact with the vast network of people established throughout their first year.
1 Niedzviecki, Hal. Facebook in a Crowd. New York Times, October 26, 2008.
2 Thompson, Clive. Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times, Sept. 7, 2008.
3 Hereafter, “friend” as it appears in quotation marks, refers to the status of “friend” on Facebook. Appearance without quotation marks refers to an acquaintanceship in the physical world.
4 Thompson, Clive. Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times, Sept. 7, 2008.
5 Ito, Mimi et al. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project, 2008.
6 Ito, Mimi et al. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project, 2008.
7 Walther Joseph B., and Brandon Van Der Heide, Sang-Yeon Kim, David Westerman, & Stephanie Tom Tong, The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep? Human Communication Research 34(1):28-49, 2008.
8 Thompson, Clive. Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times, Sept. 7, 2008.