Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Facebook - the fascination continues

My fascination with Facebook continues double apace. I hate the website with every fibre of my body and I have in rage deleted my account several times, only to find that to contact people I do need the damn things anyway. But yet, something about it continues to attract me to its strange atmosphere. I cannot help but to contemplate its psychological and sociological implications for its users and society at large (I know that sounds like altruistic wishy-washy BS but it is true). This is an ongoing experiment as ever, naturally, but I really cannot stop thinking about why it almost draws people in, as if there was no world before Facebook.

I have made some observations regarding my current account. This academic exercise must be seen in the light of how I have decided to manage my account after countless terminations. I decided that I would not 'add' any friends and that people were only allowed to 'add' me so as to make the whole exercise meaningful and remove the bias from my person. I cannot skew the results if I have not affected the results. Like quantum encryption; if you tamper with the package the receiver will know. I have not tampered with the data and remain completely (to the best of my knowledge) independent of its acquisition. Alas the results should look more favourably on my observations.

It would seem that the people who have extremely many friends, and now we are talking about the people who have in excess of 600+ "friends", have reached that number by seemingly just adding people at random, who have no bearing on their day-to-day life. This is to suggest that no matter how sociable a person it is no physiologically possible for a human-being to have a social network that spans more than even perhaps a 100 people. And even that is treading on ridiculous. Hence, I have concluded that these relatively few people collect "friends" to somehow make their standing in the community greater by somehow 'showing-off' to fellow users of the community that they are higher in the social hierarchy because they have more Facebook friends. Now there does exists the remote possibility that said person does in fact possess a network in excess of 600+ friends, genuine friends, but then one has to question the construct of that person's network. How does it function, are these relations interconnected, must these people be labelled under some kind of different label such as 'ultra-sociable'? The conclusion I was going to draw from this group of people was that although they are 'collectors' they are often also very insufferable because they are vain enough to care about such an abstract concept as online-networking. That was the conclusion as I said, but it is not anymore. While researching for this post I skimmed the people whom I would label collectors, I did find some people of utmost integrity who I could not possibly believe were collectors. Hence, I have not yet drawn a final conclusion on this one so I will leave it open-ended for now.

Remarkably enough actual research has been done on the topic we are discussing right here. Even more remarkable is that they agree with my findings as well. Here is the full article:
If you have too few "friends" on Facebook, people might think you're a loser. Too many and people might think you're a social slut. Is there an optimal number?

First let me point out that any perceptions people have of your personal characteristics based on how connected you are in a social network may actually be valid. A study published Monday in PNAS [pdf] reveals that social connectivity is partially genetic. Researchers James Fowler, Christopher Dawes, and Nicholas Christakis compared data on 1,110 identical and fraternal twins from 142 schools and found heritability in "in-degree" (how many people call you a friend), "transitivity" (how many of your friends are friends with each other), and "centrality" (how easy it would be to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon using you in the role of Kevin Bacon.) "Out-degree" (how many people you name as friends), however, is not significantly heritable.

The researchers also ran some computer simulations (using their "Attract and Introduce" model) and found that virtual people with heritable in-degree (how attractive you are as a friend) and connectivity (how often you introduce your friends) created network pattens that matched the real-life data.

The study doesn't say which heritable personality traits might contribute to popularity, but another paper coming out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology does. Psychologist Alexandra Burt tested the DNA of 200 male college students, put them in groups for the purpose of planning a party, and then had them rate each other's likability. She found that the most popular students were the most likely to bust the budget or suggest illegal stuff like drugs and hookers. They also tended to carry a variation of a serotonin-receptor gene associated with impulsivity and rule-breaking behavior. Everyone likes the bad boys.

Covering the PNAS paper, Richard Lawson wrote on Gawker, "The way the world works, you are either cool and have 600 Facebook friends, or you are worthless and only have 40." But is that true? Does 600 = cool?

In research published last year in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (and covered in Psychology Today), college students viewed Facebook profiles that were identical except for the number of friends--either 102, 302, 502, 702, or 902--and rated the target's social attractiveness (without paying special attention to friend quantity). The number with the best results: 302. Appeal dropped off above and below that.

How can you have, as the authors write, "too much of a good thing?" They hypothesize that "Individuals with too many friends may appear to be focusing too much on Facebook, friending out of desperation rather than popularity, spending a great deal of time on their computers ostensibly trying to make connections in a computer-mediated environment where they feel more comfortable than in face-to-face social interaction."

So there you go. If you're looking for an excuse to start trimming nodes from your online network, besides getting a free Whopper or avoiding urgent updates that some guy you met once was super-poked by a Zombie flower, be a rule- and friendship-breaker and do it for your own popularity. Come on, would James Dean have 900 Facebook friends? Of course not. And he'd still be on Friendster, just cuz.
Outside my main academic area I find history, psychology and sociology absolutely fascinating. I have a certain habit of analysing people, some enjoy it and some do not. Family absolutely do not mainly because I know them so well that one can now predict their actions, and in an argument knowing your opponent's defence or retort, in advance, makes the opponent very angry. Equally people say they do not like to be labelled when one positions them in category A or B. This I find is a curious response since we are all part of this world and you are not one of a kind no matter how hard you try. Your mere existence and location in this world makes you part of its quest for order and rigidity. Hence you cannot avoid being labelled just because you do not want to be labelled; you belong to this world hence you must belong to a category because we might be individuals but we are not unique (a lot of people strive for uniqueness and self-elevation but with such a large data pool of 6 billion people this is a near impossible task).

Perhaps we do not need to label the collectors as just that nor the "losers" (their term not mine) for not paying attention to the website but I do believe we need to be perfectly clear that even though we as users are not paying attention to structure, Facebook is. Not wishing to be rude about the collectors I will hasten to add the findings of another paper that I read on this subject:
University of Georgia researchers analyzed Facebook users' pages to measure the relationship between an inflated sense of self-importance and the number of friends and wall posts on the social network.

Facebook users with a large number of Facebook friends and wallposts are more likely to be narcissists, according to a new University of Georgia study.
Laura Buffardi, a doctoral student in psychology, and University of Georgia associate professor W. Keith Campbell surveyed 130 Facebook users, analyzed their Facebook pages, and asked untrained strangers to assess the page creators' narcissism. Their findings, which will appear in October in the academic journal Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, indicate that the number of Facebook friends and wallposts one has correlates with narcissism.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts talks about how social networking has created an entirely new culture around customer service.
Campbell, in a University of Georgia news release, said that narcissism hinders the ability to form healthy long-term relationships. "Narcissists might initially be seen as charming, but they end up using people for their own advantage," he said. "They hurt the people around them and they hurt themselves in the long run."

Facebook use that emphasizes self-promotion and friend quantity over quality is what Campbell considers to be narcissism.

The researchers chose Facebook because of its popularity and because of the fixed format of its social profiles, which makes comparison easier.

Narcissism severe enough to be classified as a disorder -- narcissistic personality disorder -- is defined thus by the Mayo Clinic: "Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

The concept of narcissism in the study is not as extreme.

In an e-mail, Buffardi said that there's been a lot of confusion about how narcissism is defined in psychology literature. "Importantly, we define narcissism as a normal personality trait, not a clinical disorder," she said. "Narcissism, conceptualized as a 'normal' personality variable, is distinct from narcissistic personality disorder described in the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Trait narcissism, as we operationalize it with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory in the Facebook study, does correlate significantly with clinicians' and clinical researchers' prototypes of NPD. [When] we use the term 'narcissists,' we are using it as a shorthand for 'high narcissism scores.' Those with high narcissism scores generally have an overly positive view of the self. High narcissism scores are also associated with positive and inflated self-views of traits like intelligence, power, and physical attractiveness as well as a pervasive sense of uniqueness and entitlement. Research has shown both positive and negative outcomes are associated with this trait."

Buffardi argues that use of social networking sites to keep in touch with friends and relatives isn't inherently narcissistic. While narcissists may also have these goals, she said, "The difference is that we've found that narcissists portray themselves in narcissistic ways on their profiles and nonnarcissists (i.e., those with lower narcissism scores) do not generally do this."

The study doesn't draw a line between narcissistic and nonnarcissist behavior online. "All of the measures used in this study are continuous," said Buffardi. "That is to say our data does not suggest a dichotomous separation between a reasonable and unreasonable number of friends. What we know from our data is that those who have higher narcissism scores generally have a greater number of Facebook friends."

Facebook users wishing not to be seen as narcissistic should opt for casual, ill-lit snapshots over glamorous, professional profile pictures. For the untrained strangers surveyed, "the impression of narcissism is based primarily on the number of social interactions along with the extent to which the Web page owner appears to be self-promoting and attractive in his or her main photo," according to the study.

The study also found that unlike in the real world, where narcissists tend to be the life of the party, Facebook narcissists aren't very witty. "The narcissists' quotes were judged to be less entertaining than those of nonnarcissists," the study says, though it cautions that clumsy quips could just be inside jokes that went over the heads of the surveyed strangers.
It really is a rather funny construct the whole thing; never before has connecting with your fellow man been so easy as in the 21st century. Yet business for Facebook is booming. Why? Business for online dating is also booming. Why? Are we becoming lonelier as a result of increased interactions which is to say that perhaps, as a species, we have not evolved enough yet or are not designed to have a smorgasbord of friends but rather a close-nit nucleus of confidantes. Everyone, or at least the majority of people, know who their real friends are, who they can rely on in times of great need. That is certainly true for myself, I know precisely who I can rely on were I in need of help which is why I find Facebook so daunting; one is creating an artificial atom, not nucleus, of people on whom one supposedly has enough trust in to call him 'friend'. But either this is completely taking something out of proportion or it is a watering down, a degradation, of the concept of friendship. It probably is not harmful at all, not even the slightest, but because social interaction is such a fundamental human need, meddling with its foundations should be done only with the greatest of care. I think.

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