The Social Skew – How Social Media is Redefining Our Social Circles

the social skew - how social media is redefining our social circles

I must be an abysmal salesman.

No matter how hard I try, I consistently fail in persuading some of my closest friends to adopt social media.  Although the vast majority have at least created a Facebook account (there are still the chosen few who refuse), many of these do little more than collect e-dust.  One post per season is a lot to ask from many of my BFFs.  I’m guessing you’ve got at least a few friends who fit this mold as well.

It would be fair to assume that because my closest companions either rarely or never use social media, my interest in its use would be diminished.  After all, Facebook feeds me my friends’ activity.  If my friends are largely inactive, what’s the point?

In theory, this would make sense.  In actuality, the theory fails miserably.  I don’t “check” Facebook, because checking is something you do periodically (i.e. “Billy, go check the mail”).  I am “on” Facebook (i.e. “Billy go camp by the mailbox, aggressively rip the mail out of the postman’s hands, read it, and then immediately go back on the lookout”).

So what’s the appeal?

  1. I’m a narcissist.   In general, those who use Facebook tend to be narcissists.  According to the Layman Psych article, “recent studies seem to indicate what logic would surmise.  Social networking is, at its heart, fueled by long-existing psychological tendencies. The desire to be loved and be important to the world.”  Basically this article could be the “about me” on my Facebook page.
  2. Information outlet.  A quality cat video is a quality cat video, I don’t care if it comes from my mom or my cousin’s former roommate.  The source of information is irrelevant, if I attain education or entertainment, it’s time well spent.
  3. I don’t know.  More often than not, I don’t achieve reason #2.  More likely, after a serious Facebook’ing session, I leave feeling unfulfilled.  I can’t recount all the times I’ve announced, “I’m never checking Facebook again….” except simply by saying the word “Facebook“, I’m reminded that nearly one second has passed since I’ve last checked, and promptly return.  I don’t like Facebook, but I do need it.

Okay so other than reducing my life productivity by a measly 80% or so, what’s so detrimental about dedicating such a large part of my life to the social networking world?  There has to be some value gained, right?

Where the Value Is

LinkedIn can land you a job.  Twitter can get you a primetime network TV series, or better yet, a 3 word response FROM ASHTON KUTCHER!*!#!$!*!!  You can get exclusive Good Badger cat metaphor photos on Facebook.

Social media’s benefits are undeniable.  We have access to people, information, and resources that would have sounded borderline science fiction no more than a decade ago.  People are confined in social media’s potential only by their own creativity.

Where the Value Is Not

Although social media excels in creating opportunity, it fails us, ironically enough, in maintaining social order.

BFB (before Facebook) when you wanted to communicate with a friend, your options were a phone call, text, e-mail, or face-to-face exchange.  Although the quality of interaction varied, one aspect remained constant: intention.

Friendly communication required a conscious effort.  If you wanted to know where Alex was going to a grab drink after the game, either he or you would have to initiate contact.  And because intention was the driving force behind your social activity, you had to actively decide what information was important enough to gather.  You were the director of your social conscious.

Today, as we rely more and more on Facebook as a tool to fill our communication quota, intention is gradually de-emphasized.  A glance at the “Most Recent” news feed on your Facebook home page will give you just that, a reverse chronological order list of your 400-1500 “friends” thoughts.  There’s no emphasis on those who you consider to be important.  Although you can prevent the posts of certain people from showing in your feed, most people either use this feature very sparingly or not at all.  More commonly the news feed will represent all 800 or so people who’ve made the cut in your online friendship.

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that in most cases, 80 percent of the effect can be explained by 20 percent of the cause.  Eighty percent of the car crashes are caused by 20% of drivers. Eight per cent of a websites traffic goes to 20% of its pages.  Eighty per cent of the world’s wealth is controlled by 20% of its civilians.  Facebook updates are no exception to this principle.  In fact, I would venture to guess the spread is even greater than the baseline 80/20 ratio.

Although it’s similarly true that 80% of your offline social interaction is explained by 20% of your friends, the 20% of your Facebook friends who represent the 80% of your feed almost definitely do not accurately represent these offline friendships.  There’s no logical correlation between the two unless your offline friends are explained by your online habits.  Since social media has been around for less than a decade, this is very unlikely the case.

Top News

Critics to the above argument may point to the fact that the “Top News” part of the feed actually incorporates an algorithm to try and determine who are your top friends (judging by how often you click through to their profile and attachments).  Although this is true, that’s only part of the equation.  The main factor is how “popular” the content is based upon how much interaction a post gets.  The more comments and likes, the more likely it will show in your “Top News”.

In other words, a post of “Who has Bieber Fever?!?” amongst a network of teenage girls will register as the equivalent of announcing WWIII.  Next time you see a business page, notice how much they’re inviting a response.  Now, hopefully, you understand why.

But post popularity aside, even if click through rate is an input on the equation, the most frequent posters will still register most prominently.  Additionally, a lot of the content I’m interested in receiving is time sensitive.  What someone thought about the game is far less interesting 25 hours after the fact.  This is why I filter to the “Recent Posts” most often anyways.  I know I’m not alone in this.

Awareness is 4/5ths the Battle

So a few of your less than best friends show up on your news feed.  What’s the big deal?

My current roommate also happens someone I’ve been close friends with since our middle school days.  We are both guilty of spending an absurd amount of time on Facebook.  Just a few days ago, the conversation arose that a mutual acquaintance from high school had just taken a vacation to Hawaii.  The person in subject, was someone we hadn’t talked to since high school, and even then, only rarely.  When he presented this fact, I quickly surmised that he obtained this information from Facebook, because I already possessed this knowledge.  This exact scenario occurs more frequently than either of us would like to admit.  And for every “random high school acquaintance” conversation, there are 20 that go unspoken.

Our Facebook worlds are shaping our social knowledge, whether you know it, like it, or not.

And because Facebook is becoming somewhat of a social crutch, it’s replacing genuine, intentional contact.  Why call a friend to see what’s new in their lives when we can click on their pictures and get a much more visually descriptive answer?  If they’re not offering this information, we’ll go elsewhere, or more accurately, to someone else…on Facebook.

On the surface this may seem harmless but think about the long term effects.  Those who we associate with may not be decided upon normal friendship considerations: empathy, non verbal communication (which accounts for 80% of real communication), shared experience, or selflessness. Our social presence will shift toward those who dominate our online social sphere.

Am I alone on this?  Does your online social knowledge base accurately represent your offline friendships?  Does it matter that our relationships would be skewed in the direction of those most active online?  Do you use Facebook in place for real contact?

  • D

    Amazing post! And i totally agree. To answer your Qs first: The majority of things i find out on FB is about ppl i don’t generally talk to. The ones i do talk to, i don’t need to creep FB to find out what you did/will be doing b/c you’ve already told me. I only use it for “real contact” when it comes to friends who live in other parts of the world. It’s just convenient that way.

    Your given reasons for having Facebook are bang on. Who doesn’t like their profile picture being “liked”. And watching hilarious videos that i would otherwise not take the time out of my life to look up – well, it’s fun.

    Ultimately i most agree with “I don’t like Facebook, but I do need it.” I’ve really begun to resent it the last few months, and would very much like to close my account – but then i wouldn’t be able to keep up with the friends who are scattered across the globe [as previously mentioned]. Which i wouldn’t like at all. So i stick to it. But i’ve quit (almost entirely) checking “it” unless i have a notification. Life has improved LOL

    I opened my FB account 5 years ago, when it first became available to Canadian university students. That’s about a lifetime ago. And I feel like it was more entertaining when it was more ‘exclusive’. When you didn’t have your aunts, uncles & your boss requesting friend adds. It has just begun to lose its appeal. Not to mention the quizzes, mafia wars, flower sending, etc. Frig.

    I think due to my dislike, i find Facebook to be the social media outlet with the least value. Twitter is simpler & i find i learn a lot more – retweeted local & global news, bet-ya-didn’t know tid-bits, etc. And LinkedIn really can do wonders for your career, or at least current state of (un)employment.

    This video is pretty awesome re: Social Media’s rise.

    Again, great post! I’ll be keeping up! 🙂

    ps: sorry this turned into such a novel :\

  • Last weekend I attended my 10-year high school reunion, and the experience was completely different for me than it was for my brother, who had his 10-year reunion back in 1997-ish. Why? Because his occurred pre-Facebook.

    Thanks to Facebook, I already know what most of my classmates are doing, where they are living, and if they are married/have children. Even the ones I haven’t seen since the day we graduated. Apparently, so did everyone else, because only about 25% of our class showed up, and our small talk seemed dishearteningly redundant. Social media has practically eliminated the need for a class reunion. This might seem like an insignificant change, but it’s representative of something much larger.

    Don’t you love being part of a generation who has experienced life on both sides of the internet invent? I truly do.

    Love your blog, by the way. Great topics! 🙂

  • I too have wondered about the pseudo social world that social media has created. I think for one thing, that WE are of the facebook generation. I was in University (in Canada mind you) when it first became available and likewise, I had to do a lot of persuading for other people to join.

    Phone companies have really picked up on it too, promoting social media joined to cell phone use, as if knowing where and what people are doing is so integral nowdays. The problem is that, my “real” circle of friends, a large percentage of which have ‘dusty’ facebook accounts, don’t update in this way. Most people I know still network in the ‘normal’ way. I doubt that there is anyone who networks completely within an online social circle. We’ve gotten way ahead of ourselves (and paranoid) by thinking we are completely reliable on social media. I guess my point is that most of our generation is still often ‘too busy’ to update facebook if they haven’t completely boycotted it, since yes, 80% of my feed is defintiely made up of 20% of my friends list.

    Good entry badger!

  • i totally agree with your thoughts on facebook

  • Theagingbabe

    Hi Zach, I’m Pam Kohll, your mom’s friend in Boulder. I like what you have to say about Facebook. Your mom directed me to your blog because she thinks your appalachian video is hilarious. She was worried it was because she is biased, but she doesn’t have to worry, it is hilarious and I will be following you when this journey becomes reality…

  • Hi Pam-

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this lengthy post and the compliments on the video. Apparently I had a lot to say on the matter.

    I need to start paying MWD for her referrals to this site – she is definitely the captain of the fan club.

    I’d love to have you read along as two incompetent computer nerds trek through the mountains for 6 months 🙂

    Thanks again for the feedback 🙂