facebook and conversations

The average facebook user in Australia spends five hours per month on the site (according to comScore). That’s five hours each month where you’ve moved your social life to interactions behind a screen.

The kind of people who do this are more likely to join groups, and get involved in group activities offline too (see this flowtown infographic), so in general we’re talking about people who were already spending time socialising in other ways.

And of course, it’s not just Australia.

The World Is Obsessed With Facebook from Alex Trimpe on Vimeo. ]

If you’ve moved some part of your social life onto facebook (or some other social networking site), then you have changed the way that you communicate. But have you thought about what you’ve changed, and whether you’re happy with those changes?

There are two kinds of converations that you can have on facebook: the kind of conversation that you might have over email, where you send someone a private message, and a new kind of conversation – the wall post.

Let’s leave to one side the idea that you’re moving some of your conversations to an email-style. Let’s ignore the privacy concerns with storing personal information, including the details of your “social graph” (the people you know, and the people they know), with a privately-held company that has a bad track record for privacy. Let’s ignore the cyberbullying risks.  Let’s ignore the problems of employers (and potential employers) knowing all aspects of your personal life.

Never mind the concerns raised by this slate article (thanks Nicole for the link) that the way that you present your life on facebook is skewed – you have a greater tendency to present an idealised life in your choice of photos and events you share. If you’re looking for your friends to click “Like”, then you’re going to frame even your bad news in a way that people can click “Like”.

Let’s just concentrate on the idea of the wall post and wall comment.

In the wall post, you write a message for someone that can be seen by everyone you know, in a public space that can be seen by anyone they know. If you have any sense of how to respect the privacy of other people, the kind of information you share in this context will be different to what you might share in an email, a phonecall, or a private conversation.

So the kind of information you’re sharing is less personal, and less detailed than it might be if you were using some other method to get in touch.

In terms of the breadth of people you contact in your limited time on facebook, you will tend to connect with the people who appear on your own news feed, thinking that it’s been a while since you’ve been in touch. So you stretch yourself more broadly than you might if you didn’t have the software helping you.

With only so much time, and much of the conversation happening in public, isn’t it inevitable that you’ll end up with more conversations, of a lesser quality, with a wider variety of people than you used to?

This was the question that I put to my own facebook friends via the wall, and – while I was disappointed not to have universal agreement – it was good to be able to think more broadly about this. (Let me know if you’d like your ideas credited here: for now, I’ll keep them anonymous in this forum)

There are benefits to facebook:

  • connecting with people from your past, especially when you’ve moved countries
  • sharing photos and videos with friends and family
  • providing opportunities for connection with people where a deep relationship exists already
  • can enhance the social skills of someone who has trouble socialising in person.
  • someone who is physically isolated from their friends can get some insights into what’s happening in the their lives
  • sometimes, real friendships can develop (especially those founded around some shared interest)

And down-sides

  • disagreements that were founded on tone-of-voice issues can get worse much more quickly, and can easily end in being de-friended
  • deep friendships are harder to build up online
  • the small-talk that goes with real-life conversation is bypassed: instead of asking how someone is going, anything that’s been posted on your wall is assumed.
  • it’s much harder to have a spiritual conversation, especially with someone who doesn’t share your belief system

What do you think? Is it fair to say that facebook is making us head towards less substantial conversations? Does that matter?

Join the Conversation


  1. Well, as one of those who are physically isolated from the bulk of their friends and family, I find it’s a great way to keep in touch with what’s happening – you get bits & bobs of what people are up to, pics, opportunity to have a conversation (including in chat, which you also skipped over in this article – with friends of mine who have a high typing speed, it’s almost like actually talking!), and you can share things that have happened to you that you feel are important.
    Ironically, I sometimes find I have deeper conversations on facebook than in person – in an email-style communication, you can really open up with somebody you trust … without the chance of somebody else overhearing by accident (yes, emails can be tracked & read by others but they have to be trying to do that – can’t just walk into the room and hear something they didn’t want to!). It’s also a way to offer people access to help they may need – you can include a link to the website of the service / article / * that you feel could really help them, giving them the chance to follow it up immediately.
    So, yeah, it increases the amount of less substantial conversations that most people have – but at the same time gives a clear opportunity for those willing to take the time to go deeper in their relationships.

  2. Thanks, Dave.
    I guess it does matter. Especially if our desire is to reach people in a way that goes beneath the surface, which is what mutual care is about. After all, why are we here in this world?! What is our purpose?!

    Really nice insight. And I like the link you have shared about how Facebook makes people sad in a way. I’ve seen those consequences in people with a close look.

    Thanks again. God bless.

  3. Hey Dave.
    Great synopsis! And I completely agree with your premise in that Facebook incites more conversations of a lesser quality, with a wider variety of people. But I really think our personality has more to do with this than you may initially think. I’m your classic introvert. The fact that I have 102 facebook friends (it’s jumped a little since I started uni) is a source of pride to me – and you won’t get me saying this all overy the place (see, introverted, but you’re my real-life friend, even if I haven’t seen you for, well, I don’t know how long … but I was at your wedding, so that counts). There’s no-one on there I wouldn’t sit down with for a long chat and a great coffee … some I haven’t seen for 15 years – and some I caught up with just this past Christmas holidays because I “found” them on facebook. But the stuff I say on that forum is trivia; often complete rubbish. So in essence, it fits what you’re saying: 1. more conversations (including people I’ve not seen for AGES); 2. lesser quality (I rarely, if ever, talk about anything of consequence); and 3. wider variety of people (well, see point 1 really :))

    Does it matter? Of course it does, and our own children will be kept off such as long as humanly possible. But do I appreciate the connections with lost friends? Yes. Why did I “lose” them? Part of growing up I suppose, and moving away from my home state. Now I’m in my late 30s, I think I’m almost grown up, and really appreciate ALL the people who have woven in and out of my life, so I am grateful for the opportunity to connect with them again. We’re in a halfway house generation; if we’d been 20 years older, we’d still be writing letters to each other and sending real cardboard cards on birthdays … but it’s an achingly curious type of adjustment.

    I think the connection is the important part, and feeling connected, which is something I think I do want our children to understand. Probably that’s quite enough pondering for a Saturday night … if you can unravel it.

    Take care, and thank you for posing such an interesting question.

  4. I agree. I feel that Facebook makes friends lazy and makes people have less meaningful interactions. People don’t go out of their way to call, drop by or even email as much because they can already see what’s going on in your life. I deleted my Facebook recently due to this. I want to interact with people more in person rather than wasting large amounts of my life perusing the newsfeed.

  5. I pick e) all of the above. Seriously, Facebook is such a mixed bag. All those points are true – in the realm of Facebook, by its very nature, we start to share less and less meaningful information. That doesn’t bother me – it’s just the nature of the beast. After all, if you were at a group gathering with ten people you didn’t know that well, you’d share less of yourself than you would if you were in a room with two people that were really good friends.

    My main two concerns are: 1) If you try to use Facebook as your primary means of having a social circle, it’s really demoralising. I remember a few years ago opening the page with a depressing feeling that I have heaps of “friends”, and I know all about them – but I didn’t feel as if I could pick up the phone or invite myself round or catch up with very few of them. Nowadays, I find other ways of creating social interaction, and Facebook makes a nice addition to that to find extra things about friends – but I’m not leaning on it in any way *for* a social circle.

    But what about all the teenagers out there? Are they trying to use Facebook for that purpose? How many lonely kids are there out there desperately trying to reach out to people via Facebook – a medium that will never work to bring them the relationships they want?

    2) My second concern – and I’m not sure if this is founded at all – is what if the next generation *learns* social skills from Facebook? In other words, what if we assume that the shallowness inherent in Facebook is how we should interact in real life, and we never form deep relationships with anybody? That would be a shame.

    It seems that from the research you were pointing to, a lot of Facebook users are quite social in real life, so probably not. But will it change in the future? That’s what I’d worry about.

    Speaking of which, I should get offline and organise to catch up with you for lunch or a coffee sometime…

  6. Great post. I saw on one link that “religious” people use fb alot, I would agree, and churches even encourage members to sign up to their pages. What does this mean for relationships in and outside the church. Anyway I don’t know but just got me thinking…

  7. I disagree, mostly. In a few ways; for a few reasons.

    Regarding the “idealised self” presented: some people do this more than others. I find that the more people try to present an idealised self, the more they reveal their true self. You can tell a lot about someone by how they want to appear.

    Your discussion of messages versus the wall is interesting. The wall is often the small talk I find. It’s like the conversations you might have at a party or in a group. It’s not for the more personal one-on-ones — messages are for that. It’s also for sharing things you find online — it’s a bit like twitter in that regard. Messages, as well as thd personal conversation thing, are also more like the letters of old. No I don’t send (or receive) letters anymore. But I exchange many more Facebook messages than I ever did letters (and I’m old enough to have exchanged letters with friends).

    But thinking overall, I think you fall a little into the common trap of thinking about Facebook as a replacement for face-to-face relationships. (For most people) it’s not! It’s complementary. And in fact the benefit it’s brought to my (and I imagine others’) life is that it’s provided a way to keep in closer contact with friends in between face-to-face moments. And that’s for an old fart like me! For my teenage kids it’s just another part if the mix, in with the telephone and the SMS (and it must be said formspring and increasingly twitter) as just another may of engaging in their real life friendships.

    Oh, and they send letters to each other too.


  8. @darkdirk, thanks for your comment (and I really like the poster boy song, by the way).

    I agree that if you reflect on it you can tell a lot of people from their idealised self, but I’m not sure that facebook encourages that kind of reflection. It’s mostly a passive, surfing experience, seeing the lives of people that you’ve long lost touch with in real life.

    I’m glad you’re able to use facebook messages in the same way that handwritten letters were used – perhaps I’m too cynical, but I worry about the privacy implications of putting such thoughts into the control of a privately held company.

    Maybe my whole argument is skewed by the significantly reduced amount of time I have for face-to-face relationships when I have a new baby in the house?

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