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Business anthropologists like myself observe people’s habits and behaviours, and translate these observations into useful insights about their lives, and how they interact with products and brands. Knowing and understanding how people use products at present can enrich the understanding of future trends.
Lately, I have been asked all sorts of questions regarding future trends in the use of social networks. A common question that has been posed is: What is the future of Facebook? I won’t attempt to give an answer to it in this post because I don’t think this can be predicted without exhaustive observation of cultural and social trends.
Instead the matter I would like to explore, has to do with the social circumstances that have made Facebook the most popular social network at present and, based on this, analyse how people relate with each other through this application.
I believe that Facebook has changed the way individuals interact with each other online and, consequently, offline. This transformation, however, is the result of circumstances that made such a behaviour change possible. For me, the main cause for such a shift is the dissolution of boundaries between the private and public arena at present. When people join Facebook, they automatically expose themselves to others and vice-versa. This act, in a way, makes us exhibitionists while others become voyeurs. From this viewpoint Facebook belongs to the public arena. I will explain the dynamics of this application as follows.
“Stalking” has become socially accepted
Anthony Giddens, a well- known British sociologist, defined modern friendship as “a relationship motivated exclusively by the rewards that the relationship itself offers…In practice and in principle, we are only friends with someone when reciprocity is sustainable within the relationship”.
Taking this definition as a reference point, what happens when friendships take place in the public arena, as it happens on Facebook? What is the nature of the relationships that people are currently having with one another?
I think that Facebook, as it happens with social media platforms, works because individuals share information with one another and this is how they connect. In this sense, reciprocity is necessary for the application to work. Interestingly, online social rules are not the same as the ones for offline friendships. While some people actively engage with the media and exchange contents with others, expose themselves, and follow other people, there are those who stay aside and let the former group follow them. I argue that this behaviour cannot be considered a friendship, because it excludes the give and take aspect of the relationship.
Privacy and the notion of identity
When I think of changes that social relationships have gone through over the last couple of decades, I believe that if there is a starting point from which this transformation can be understood, it is the barriers that privacy poses to some people who want to liberate themselves from it.
In the past decades, during the transition from the modernity to what many call post-modernity (a term that I prefer to avoid), the boundaries between private and public started disappearing. Whereas before the public arena was the scenario for politics and public opinion in which democracy emerged, at present people want to have more control over public issues. Previously, society needed a stronger division between the public and the private arenas so that the State had ownership of matters that now have been privatised, such as telephone companies for instance.
With the transition to post-modernity, the individual started focusing on individual topics such as a notion of identity, and the care of the body. Both topics became very popular in social sciences.
It could be said that for some decades up to now we have lived in the era of the individual as opposed to the era of the public. This behaviour has been enhanced by a capitalist order followed by globalisation, which have made obvious that individuals make choices and have full control over their own lives.
Based on the latest work I have done on social media, and my observations throughout my professional career, I argue that our increasing need to expose our individual and private lives to the public as we do on Facebook, is one of many manifestations of the early days of what I call ‘the era of the followers’. This is an era in which perhaps people feel constrained by privacy, and find pleasure in opening themselves up to others by sharing information about their own lives. By doing so, they are exposed to being followed by others who expose themselves too and so on.
What other people do with such information, and how reciprocal the exchange is, can be discussed and observed further. The point is that this didn’t happen overnight, I argue. This has been the result of people’s empowerment as the division between the public and the private arenas became more subtle, and individuals became more concerned with their own lives and bodies.
In this sense, people have not necessarily become less focused on themselves, and more interested in public matters. It can very well mean the opposite. We have become so self-obsessed that we need people to follow what we do and think, because we think we have something to say.
I watch people using internet at the coffee shop I go to every morning. I pay attention to the sites they visit, what they do when they are there, and approximately how long they spend in each site. The first site they log onto is Facebook, and once they are in it, they go straight to their pictures or their friends’. This is the most obvious way in which I have realised they follow others. The other common activity while they are online is chatting with friends. This activity is combined with Gmail chat too, which is general for people across all age groups.
I have noticed that many of my FB contacts link their status to their tweets, which they update very often, and there is a lot of reciprocation because people comment on each other’s status, which becomes a conversation amongst different participants.
This shows that they have a great interest in telling others how they feel about things, and expressing their opinions about issues. I would even argue that the need to let people know what we think is stronger than the need to know what others have to say, but the one doesn’t work without the other.
It is obvious to me now that the changes we are being part of at present, are nothing new to us. Instinctively we all have a need to connect with others, and communication entails exchanging information with them. For instance, gossiping is one of the oldest expressions of social engagement, so going through other people’s pictures on Facebook is a digital version of this practice.
I refer to stalking in this post because Facebook effectively triggers our observers’ instinct to a maximum, but this does not mean that the application is responsible for the use we make of it.
A step further in this discussion, would be looking at the drivers of the ‘stalking’ behaviour. I still have a lot of questions regarding to what extent individuals control the application and the information they publish. I think that the implications of understanding how this works in the public arena, are quite important and shouldn’t be overlooked.