social (networking) awkwardness

March 24, 2009 under Internet

I recently attended a friend of mine’s Stag and Doe in my hometown of Timmins, Ontario. Like many young people from Northern Ontario, I graduated from university and relocated to a city with more opportunities that are applicable to my field of study. As such, I make the 800 kilometre trek from Kitchener to Timmins for visits and occasions like the aforementioned Stag and Doe – and in all honesty, I don’t do it as often as I should. That said, there are many people in Timmins that I know/knew and have consequently added to my Facebook friends list. While at the Stag and Doe, I noticed some new social dilemmas brought about by social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

There are those on my Facebook friends list – acquaintances, really – whom I speak with sporadically if at all, yet if they provide status updates and post pictures, I have a pretty good idea what’s going on in their lives with no actual conversation between us required. I’ve seen pictures of their vacation to Cuba, the house they just bought, their newborn children and the wicked kegger they went to last weekend. I know when they’re happy/sad/at work/[insert any number of life’s banalities here]. So when meeting face-to-face with someone I haven’t seen in a while whose recent life events are available to me on Facebook, a few awkward moments can occur. For example, people post lots of pictures on Facebook:

Them: Wanna see pictures of our baby?
Me: I saw them when you posted them on Facebook.
Them: Oh, ok. [down-cast face]
Me: [summoning enthusiasm] Let’s see them again.

Awkward! It’s like entering a room where people are supposed to shout “surprise” at you, but you caught them off guard when they weren’t ready, so you’re requested to leave and enter the room again and act just as surprised.

Another confusing situation is when you meet a person whom you haven’t seen in some time and struggle to start a catching-up conversation. They may have posted status updates about how they hate their boss or renovated their kitchen or bowled a perfect game or bought the Dalai Lama a beer – and you, in turn, commented on these status updates or wrote on each other’s walls. The whole face-to-face catching-up chit chat that would normally take place in the good ol’ pre-Facebook days is eschewed, and what you’re left with is something akin to an old Chris Farley sketch from SNL when it was still watchable:

Me: Hey, remember when you when said you bowled a perfect game and I’m like “three-oh-oh my God, that rawks” and you were all “ya, I was so pumped”?
Them: Yeah.
Me: [giddily] That was awesome.

Admittedly, I’m a staunch technology advocate and early-adopter, but I am concerned about where we’re headed as a species. Once upon a time, the concern was that email, IM and IRC would erode our social skills, leaving us tethered to computers in darkened rooms incapable of having in-person conversations ever again. The thing about email, IM and IRC is that they’re still essentially two-way communications; you bring up a topic of conversation, then you get a reply, then you reply, then you reply and so on. Social websites like Facebook, on the other hand, allow people to broadcast the goings-on of their lives and an audience comments and rates the activities. It’s like we’re all Jim Carey’s character in The Truman Show, except that we know we’re the show and we play it up. Yet because Facebook is our window into everybody else’s life, it leaves us with little to say to our acquaintances that we’ve reconnected with on Facebook when we’re standing in front of them once again. Some of our interactions will have to evolve, but how?

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