Le sigh. I lost control over my Facebook tonight. Or rather, the context got destroyed. For months, I’ve been ignoring most friend requests. Tonight, I gave up and accepted most of them. I have been facing the precise dilemma that I write about in my articles: what constitutes a “friend”? Where’s the line? For Facebook, I had been only accepting friend requests from people that I went to school with and folks who have socialized at my house. But what about people that I enjoy talking with at conferences? What about people who so kindly read and comment on this blog? What about people I respect? What about people who appreciate my research but whom I have not yet met? I started feeling guilty as people poked me and emailed me to ask why I hadn’t accepted their friend request. My personal boundaries didn’t matter – my act of ignorance was deemed rude by those that didn’t share my social expectations.
I lost control over my MySpace ages ago. I have long since given up responding to private messages on most SNSes. I had to quit LinkedIn after I got lambasted for refusing to forward requests from people that I didn’t know to people who are so stretched thin that I am more interested in hugging them than requesting something of them. I don’t know how to be “me” on Twitter because I can’t figure out how to manage so many different contexts. I find it funny when journalists ask me what SNS I use. I’m on most of the English ones, but they always grow to push me away. Each had an initial context for me, but each one grew and lost that context.
I realize that I’m in an odd position. In some sense, I’m a “public figure”… at least in the world of social network sites. People see my name in the press and they friend request me and it’s rude of me to say no. I should be grateful that so many people are so kind to me, offering feedback and ideas, allowing me to get my work out far and wide. And I am truly grateful, but I’m also depressed that I’ve lost the ability to participate in social network sites as a semi-private person. I do miss the days when I could goof around digitally and not be taken out of context by people who only know me as this strong-headed, confident public voice. Some days, I’m just not that together. Some days, I just want to bitch without being called a bitch. Some days, I just want to talk to people who couldn’t give a hoot about social media.
When Facebook became the IT girl for the tech industry, I knew that I’d one day lose it as a space where I talked to my friends from college. I’m going to try out the Limited Profile thing, just to see if I can have at least a partial channel for my college world. If we didn’t go to college together, please don’t take it personally if you can only see the Limited Profile. That said, I can’t even tell what’s visible and what’s not (lists aren’t good for me) so I probably will just refrain from doing much on Facebook, just like I refrain from doing much on MySpace.
They say that social scientists study aspects of human behavior that elude them. I used to giggle at this, but I think I’ve backed myself into a corner. I’m not so good at managing multiple contexts and, here I am, studying precisely that.
Anyhow, I know folks are still going wheeeeee about Facebook. And I know people generally believe that growth is nothing but candy-coated goodness. And while I hate using myself as an example (cuz I ain’t representative), I do feel the need to point out that context management is still unfun, especially for early adopters, just as it has been on every other social network site. It sucks for teens trying to balance mom and friends. It sucks for college students trying to have a social life and not piss off their profs. It sucks for 20-somethings trying to date and balance their boss’s presence. And it sucks for me.
I can’t help but wonder if Facebook will have the same passionate college user base next school year now that it’s the hip adult thing. I don’t honestly know. But so far, American social network sites haven’t supported multiple social contexts tremendously well. Maybe the limited profile and privacy settings help, but I’m not so sure. Especially when profs are there to hang out with their friends, not just spy on their students. I’m wondering how prepared students are to see their profs’ Walls filled with notes from their friends. Hmmm…