My accidental social media experiment: How Facebook changed the way we define friendships

April 15 | Guest post by Dawn
How does Facebook affect your friendships? (Photo by: birgerkingCC BY 2.0)
I am a social media user. I say that without shame! While I am not one of those people who updates my status every five minutes, or sends a tweet every two minutes, I do interactively use social media to stay in touch, talk about world events, to post pictures of various things of importance to me in my life. Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn… Yep, I have them all and I use them all almost daily.

I should back up just a bit and come clean (because I do think this all might be somewhat linked to my recent accidental discovery)… I am in my early 40s. I did not grow up with cell phones, home computers, iPods, iPads, etc. I was actually very late to the electronic device game. I did not own my first computer until 2000. My first cell phone came in 2003, and I carried it a full year without really ever turning it on. I was well into my late twenties when these things became a part of my daily life. And I didn't own my first smart phone until two years ago. Still a newbie in many eyes!

So I certainly remember a time, a glorious time I think some days, where I was not connected at all.

In 2006 I discovered my first on-line community and I really started getting involved in the internet. It can be a wonderfully intoxicating event to connect to people all over the world.

I wrote my first blog. I found some of the best friends I have never met in these communities. People I felt closer to than in real life. People who just "got" me. First came online support group, then came Myspace, then came a craft beer community where I really found my online voice. I was one of a handful of ladies in a very male dominated on-line community. Sometimes it went well. Sometimes it didn't. But I felt at home there.

I met my husband on that site. In a chat room no less. Talking about craft beer.

So of course having some kind of online presence has definitely helped define the last 10 years of my life. I mean, I met my husband online. How could the internet NOT define me?

I've had a love/hate relationship with Facebook since the get-go

I hate how boring it is. I hate how it dictates to me what I should like and who I should interact with and who I shouldn't. I hate how it changes all the time and rarely, in my opinion, for the better. I hate how popular it has become. And I hate how much time I spend there.

Yet, most of my online family, as well as former co-workers, classmates, and even long-lost friends and family now connect there. So without Facebook, I can't stay connected. The days of phone calls, or emails from long-lost connections seem to be gone. Everyone just seems to "Facebook" each other. We have turned a thing into a verb.

Then the holidays came this year. A time of numerous social gatherings with friends and family you don't see nearly enough. And a little phrase kept sticking in my brain. The first time I kind of just laughed it off. "Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook."

But then it kept happening. One by one, I met with friends, family, coworkers over the holidays. And as we were "catching up" on our lives, and I would tell them what I have been up to, things I felt were of great importance to me and would be interesting to them; I heard it more and more. "Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook" and the topic seemed no longer important enough to discuss. My real life updates were no longer important because I had already updated the world via Facebook.

Could I be divulging too much on social media?

I DO use Facebook frequently. I "check in" to places. I give shout outs to my gym, my favorite stores, my favorite local finds, even my favorite people. Yet, many of my closest REAL life friends and family do NOT. While they maintain pages, they don't actually use them much.

So I started feeling like they had an unfair friendship advantage over me. And I felt sad and more than a little disappointed and yes, disconnected from them and the real world.

Could it be that my actual friendship, a face to face presence, was no longer needed in their world because I post on Facebook? Did my status updates constitute "keeping in touch" in their book? Did they no longer feel the need to go shopping, grab a bite, or see a movie, because they were keeping tabs on me via Facebook? It kind of appeared that way.

So I decided to try my accidental experiment

I deactivated my Facebook account. I deleted the app from my phone. I made no announcement. No drama. I simply got up one morning and hit DEACTIVATE. It was both scary and exciting.

I went into it not knowing how long it would last. I just knew I had to do some thinking and reflecting on how to manage friendships and relationships in our current world. I did this more for me than for them. I wanted to see what life without Facebook, or social media in general, was like now. And what I found out still has me contemplating.

The first 48 hours were brutal. I felt like a drug addict detoxing. I was tempted at least 50 times to log in. To see what the world was doing. It took everything I had in me to NOT log in. It made me uncomfortable!

Could it be that, in just five short years, Facebook has become so much a part of me that NOT being there felt like I was missing a vital part of me? I am afraid so.

And interestingly enough not one of my close, in person, friends, or family members noticed. Not one. No one called, texted or emailed me. But many other people did…

Those former co-workers, or online community connections I had made, wondered where I was and if I was okay. Quite a few texted me or contacted me through other websites that I was still active in, Linkedin, Pinterest, Myfitnesspal, etc. and a few even remembered my REAL email and actually sent lengthy emails asking about me and showing concern.

I must admit I was surprised by the results

It has forced me to really look inside and see how I have contributed to this shift in friendships. In addition to forcing me to re-define what friendship actually IS these days. My circle of close friends that I hang with seems to have diminished, or at least my importance to those friendships has, while my online family and those I feel even more connected with seems to have grown quite a bit.

How can that be? Is that normal? Am I normal?

It seemed maybe some "un-friending" in real life was needed and that is a VERY complicated thing.

I have since rejoined Facebook. Because I missed my on-line friends. Some might say they can't really be friends if you never see them but to that I say hogwash. I like these people. I truly missed these people and their updates. And apparently, some of them missed me.

But I did narrow my friends list quite a bit. And I will be doing a lot more work going forward on the real relationships I have. Because I did miss some of those too. And the ones I didn't, well, I guess it's time to clean up that friends list too.

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  1. Just like you, my definition of "friends" shifted greatly due to social media. There are friends in various states away from me that I would more likely put as an emergency contact for me over closer (previous) friends and family. I have great discussions, learn and appreciate more viewpoints on life, and "experience" more with Facebook friends as well. We all have *something* in common (babies born in the same month and year, a shared love over a movie, etc.), and we build from there.

    The ironic thing is, although I post on my personal FB/Instagram/Twitter selectively, I still keep my feet in social media waters since I handle my church's social media presence. I am always ON. I think that too contributes to how I interact on my personal social media sites.

    4 agree
  2. I have a set of great friends whom I met through a forum. The forum itself is dying a long and slow death (because of social media? sometimes I wonder . . .), but I love interacting with my forum friends on Facebook, and I wouldn't have the opportunity to do so otherwise.

    There are also a handful of people whom I knew well-but-not-too-well in the past (classmates, pen pals in the traditional sense), but with whom I somehow communicate better on Facebook. I genuinely enjoy hearing about their daily challenges and excitements. The list of people I follow on Facebook is getting shorter and shorter, and the list of people with whom I share my own posts is also very short. I recently changed my background profile picture on Facebook, and I got all kinds of "likes" from people I hadn't interacted with on facebook in ages. Then I felt kind of guilty for essentially blocking these nice people who liked my publicly available picture. But you have to limit it somehow . . .

    On another note, I miss those lengthy emails back and forth with old friends. Why don't people do that anymore? Sometimes I still write that kind of long email, and then I catch myself and think, "oh, no one does this anymore . . ."

    5 agree
    • This. Absolutely. I have a core group of weight loss buddies I met in 2006. I have never met any of these ladies but share more with them than with any others in my life. Our forum is dying or has died as well, but we still keep in touch. Without FB I could not do so. I did end up scaling my friends list back a ton. And I do think a little bit more about what I post and to whom. But like you, sometimes I too miss the long emails or even letters…

      1 agrees
      • Surely there's nothing stopping you from writing lengthy emails? I'm sure we all love recieving them, its just hard to write back, but you could start the trend??

  3. Interesting! I think people are prone to blaming social media for something, when your experience on social media depends completely on the type of people you add/friend/follow on it. Essentially, if you hate Facebook because it's too dramatic, etc. maybe you friend too many dramatic people and should take care to resolve that in your life. I think it provides a unique perspective on your friendship circle as a whole, and can shed light on certain issues, just the way it seemed to for the author.

    Also, online friends rock.

    12 agree
  4. I agree with you that it's absolutely possible to be friends with people online. We shouldn't let mere geography define our possible friends. And a lot of the time, it's easier to be honest and more revealing to someone online, rather than someone you might run into in the grocery store.

    I used to have difficulties when online relationships and face to face relationships intersect. Did anyone else pretend to NOT see stuff on facebook because it could be seen as weird and "facebook stalking?" I don't post a lot, so I would know way more about other people than they knew about me. And that uneven relationship is weird! I think people are slowly realizing that everything they post DOES wind up in someone's feed, where they glance at it since it is there. It doesn't weird me out as much to post stuff and have someone read it because isn't that the whole point?

    I think the trend is toward using facebook as a starting point for conversations with people in real life. "Hey! I saw that you posted pictures of x activity on facebook. I didn't know you were into that", etc etc. I find that I have way more to talk about with someone in person if I have an prior update on their life because you can ask more specific questions, etc. You can talk about activities, places, etc, rather than making small talk. And it also saves some awkward conversations about "How's your significant other?" if you already found out that they broke up from social media.

    I am not very active in facebook posting, so I generally wait to have a conversation some people would have over facebook face to face if I am going to see them later. Does anyone else do this?

    5 agree
    • This is a great perspective. I have several times, while cleaning up my friends list, unfriended people because they just dont interact with me much. I wasn't trying to be mean, but FB to me is interactive. So I assumed they simply did not care or have an interest. But I had numerous people email me and ask to be friends again because they simply enjoyed reading my posts and looking at my pics. (Yeah, I am that girl posting pics of her super cute mutts!)

      On some level this weirded me out at first. But then again, that's kind of what social media is about. It's a shout out to the world that "Hey, come see what I am up to". So it's not fair of me to feel weird when they do.

      2 agree
  5. I gave up FB for lent this year. My husband changed my password so I can't log on. I've been off for over a month and have another week to go. I have had my FB account since the very beginning– it will turn 10 next month.

    I love the freedom of not being addicted to FB anymore. That being said, our society had evolved so much around social media that I'm now extremely isolated. I email my friends and they don't email me back. People start to tell me a story and say "oh right, I forgot you weren't on FB, never mind". Since my schedule doesn't allow for much actual hanging out time (I'm a grad student/homemaker so I'm at home during business hours and have a rehearsal or class every evening). Nobody reaches out to me because I'm not "easy" to get ahold of anymore. I don't get invited to parties anymore. People do not seem to be interested in writing emails or letters because those are longer than 140 characters, and since my working hours are the opposite of society, phone calls are difficult too (not that I like the phone anyway).

    Long story short, my life is better without social media… But I'm extremely lonely and now only see my husband on a regular basis.

    9 agree
    • This is exactly how I ended up feeling during my break. Isolated. Left out even.

      Sure, I had more time on my hands per say but most of my socializing and friendships are on line these days. The real life friends I thought I could never live without, well, I found I hadnt made time for them or they with me in months. I found I would email friends, not hear a response, then I would have to Facebook them to see if they got my email.

      My end result was a few real life unfriendings. And a renewed effort to actually meet up with my friends and spend some quality time together. As well as branching out and making new friends both on line and in real life.

      3 agree
  6. I also gave up Facebook for Lent this year. I did send a message to the mod/friend who runs an online group I was active in to let her know I was taking the break, but I didn't do much else besides put up a profile picture stating I was gone for Lent.

    I keep getting emails about notifications I'm missing…I've even been poked twice. But…I DON'T miss facebook. I still read blogs, I still check my email, and my husband has alerted me if our friends want to get together through events he is getting invited to still on Facebook. I totally relate to feeling of freedom some of the other comments have described. I am spending more time with my son, more time on housework, more time even on pursuits that make me happy than sitting refreshing Facebook, seeing if someone commented yet, or feeling jealous of other people's portrayals of their lives. I wish I could leave forever and not end up totally alienated from the world. I'm still debating if I will reactivate right after Lent or just hold out…

    4 agree
  7. A lot of this really resonates with me, actually, and I am much less "involved" with my social media. I do frequently use Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and occasionally Twitter, but I don't post many things in great detail. I post funny texts I receive or big life events like switching universities, little annoyances or achievements like that awesome omelette I made, and my feelings about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. All of the bigger things or more personal things (like how my exams are going, the clubs I've joined, how that job interview went) I tell over more private mediums like personal messages, texts, phone calls. Heck, I have less than 90 "Facebook friends" and they are all family, off-line and online friends I see or speak to fairly frequently. Yet I've had to do some real world "un-friending" based on the prevalence of "yeah, I saw that on Facebook."

    I'm not sure, but after my own contemplations, I think this has a lot more to do with the quality of the initial friendship rather than the impact social media has had on how we connect. I have online friends who check in more frequently and more in-depth than friends I have had since middle school. Never once have online or long distant friends implied that they "didn't need to" ask me about my life because they "see it all" through my social medias, yet closer friends (both literally and figuratively) have said as much.

    In art and media criticism there is a term called the "myth of photographic truth," which essentially states that what we see in a photograph is a constructed truth: it may contain elements of the truth, but it will never be the complete truth or free of the bias of the photographer. I would like to extend this concept to social media, as well: each Facebook status or blog post, much like each photograph taken, is meticulously framed and posed and thus can never fully express the truth behind it. If you want the truth (or at least, more of it) you need to look beyond the frame, and I think social interaction in this day and age is much the same. It doesn't matter if I post six statuses a day or a year: if you think that is enough to know me — to truly know me — and that you do not need to communicate directly with me to maintain a friendship, well, I don't really think that's a worthwhile relationship for me to continue.

    6 agree
  8. This. 1000 times! You are right. This is what made me so sad during my absence. Those real life friends who kept brushing me off saying "they saw that on facebook" I felt they were using my posts as a way to say they were still in my life and a big part of it. But what I post is a very small portion of what is going on. And I think after a lot of reflection I came to the sad realization that they didn't really know me at all and the friendship really wasn't quite what I thought it was to begin with.

    3 agree
  9. I gotta say that I HAVE used the dreaded "IsawthatonFacebook" line – but instead followed it up with "So hows it going? What's up with that?" I find I have a much, much, much easier time reconnecting with people I don't see much in person because I start with a basic frame of knowledge!

    8 agree
    • When that's how the conversation goes, I'm really okay with that! I think I do it occasionally sometimes as well, because sometimes it's easier to keep a conversation going if you have a jumping off point (especially if you haven't seen someone in a while or whatnot). It's the dismissive way in which I've heard it used which really bugs me, personally.

      1 agrees
    • I get that too! Mostly from family at gatherings that prefer to chat in person rather than online, and so it's normally a conversation starter. I also have friends that I don't interact with online come up to me at gatherings and say "Hey, thanks for posting positive or funny stuff, it always makes me smile and it always appears right when I need it." (Which is really sweet, because I always worry about ending up on the STFU Parents blog)

      2 agree
  10. If all I did was socialize, then I think I could easily give up Facebook. It DOES suck up a ton of my time, and I do tend to get wrapped up in drama that in real life I would just walk away from. However, I'm heavily involved in several groups that center around my career. Facebook groups have been replacing forums and email list-serves, and so now almost all of my interactions with colleagues around the world happen through Facebook. It's also where I get most of my news, and where I get updates from blogs (like this one!) I'll even share articles with my husband on his Facebook page or through message, since it's way easier than emailing them to him if he's not sitting right beside me to read them. So for me, socializing is a small part of what use Facebook for, and those other things are too valuable to me to give it up completely. I feel like that's becoming more and more true the longer it's around.

    3 agree
  11. I barely use Facebook. My husband basically doesn't use it at all, and when we first got together, he really helped me to see just how 'out there' my life was. He could look through all my history (especially when they started the activity log) and see everything I'd done, which groups I belonged to (even if they were supposedly private), everything. It freaked me out a little, to be honest.
    Since then, I've been deleting a lot of the stuff from my activity log (yeah sure, Facebook still owns it, but at least my friends can't see it), my searchability is near impossible (though apparently one of my colleagues sons was able to find me, when I have my settings as friends only can see my profile, friends of friends can see I exist, no one else can search me… and she was able to tell me what my profile picture was. Uh… cue freak out?).
    I used it recently for my NaNo updates, because it really helped to have people commenting and liking on my word count every day to keep me motivated, but apart from that… it's really helped me focus on who is important in my life. My friend list is at about 88, but tbh, I could probably get rid of a bunch of those too. I began with "Who would send me a happy birthday wish if Facebook didn't remind them it was my birthday?", and went from there 😛

  12. I go through phases where I give up Facebook due to being overwhelmed with other peoples' lives (babies that I am not having, etc.). It's rarely one person that pushes me to do it; instead, I find myself needing a break from the information overload. When I do go on a Facebook hiatus, I miss the core group of friends I'm always in contact with on there anyway. I think that says a lot; they are truly friends who I trade barbs with, showcase recipes, laugh at pets, etc. I also miss updates from favorite businesses, as they advertise specials, new menu items, coupons, etc. on Facebook far quicker than via email.

    I did lose a friendship due to Facebook addiction (hers, not mine). Every time we went out to eat, drink, etc., she was glued to her phone. She had to post photos, quips, and status updates at every turn. When I confronted her about it by defriending her (ha, how appropriate), she freaked out and was unwilling to acknowledge her behavior.

    Interestingly, I have quite a few FB friends that I do not know in real life. We've befriended each other through commenting on local news stories or other mutual interests. I really like the "them" that is on-screen. How close that is to the real-life "them" I might never know, but FB provides a medium for like-minded people to connect.

    2 agree
  13. I seriously didn't know people took "Oh, I saw that on Facebook" to mean the topic isn't worth discussing further. When I say it to people, it's to let them know that I take enough of an interest in their life to see what they post and remember it later, and that I'd love to hear more about it beyond the blurb they posted in a status, link, or check-in a few months ago. Am I the only one who uses the phrase this way? Should I add something like, "I've been wanting to hear more about it?" to let people know I don't mean "So STFU already"?

    8 agree
    • Go ahead and add the phrase, or just add a question like "How's that going?" — it means they can skip anything they said in that post, and get to the rest of it, and that's bloody awesome. But if you add a question asking for more, it defeats any question they might have about which way you mean it.

      2 agree
  14. This was a great post. I have been chipping away at my friends list for years! When I was in high school I had about 20,000 myspace friends (LOL yes, 20,000. Who even really KNOWS that many people?). When I joined facebook in 2006, I only had 900. Having so many people talking and posting can be over whelming. Now, at 24 years old, I only have 43 people added. A lot of my peers think it's weird but it's SO AWESOME. I deleted old classmates who I was never really friends with in the first place, people I don't interact with, and anyone who I felt was dramatic or had headache inducing posts (haha). In fact, most of my remaining friends are from other states.

    While it is great that I don't consume all my time on social media anymore, I won't say that I get a lot more done….I've just found other distractions. But the difference, for me, is that these new distractions are fun and drama-free. Social media is awesome when you use it right.

  15. I'm so bad at facebook, and social media in general. I check FB most days, but don't fret if I don't. I check to see if I've been invited to something or tagged, and if I have time, I'll scroll through to see what people posted. Honestly, the main reason I keep it is because it's an easy way to contact people, and for people to contact me if they don't have my phone number or email address. I also look to see photos friends of friends post from events we attended together, and like looking at my friends vacation photos. I post a status update once every few months, and it's usually a meme. Sometimes I think I'm too much of an extrovert to be good at social media…

    • You could write a post about how not to be sucked in by Facebook 🙂 Seriously though, the reason I gave it up for Lent was because I was literally addicted. I don't even like 90% of the stuff that's being posted (yet another friend having her fifth kid at age 22 or whatever…. Buzzfeed BS…. annoying quizzes or liked pages… somebody else got engaged) but I couldn't stop and just refreshed the news feed over and over… and when it wasn't refreshing fast enough, I would go to specific people's pages to see if I missed anything that they had posted. I'm afraid that if I get back on Facebook after this weekend, I will go right back to where I started– it seems to be all or nothing for me.

      1 agrees
      • I don't think I could write a how-to post. I think it's just how I'm wired. I like both instant and delayed gratification, but most modern social media gives me neither. When I say instant, I mean instant. The widening of your eyes, a smirk, an eye roll, a laugh, giggle, chuckle, snort or heavy sigh, and a conversational reply. If I don't get a response within 2 seconds, then I move on. Delayed gratification is also nice. I put something out there (like a blog response or email) and check back in a few hours or days to see if I got any responses. Facebook, and especially Twitter (even texting), seem like responses occur anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour.

        My only advice would be to allocate one certain time a day where you can check your Facebook. Only give yourself an hour time frame to look at all the things before logging off for the day. Delete the app from your phone; only check it from your home computer.

        When people constantly check for updates on social media, it reminds me of the kid who's waiting for something in the mail who runs out to the mailbox every few minutes, even though he (or she) knows the mail doesn't usually come for hours.

  16. What about implementing a no local fb friends policy? That's what I do as I only joined fb so I could maintain contact with people i met while travelling (because noone seems to swap email addresses anymore 🙁 ). I then added friends who live interstate so I can keep tabs on what they're up to as well, because I don't call as often as I should. But I have resisted the temptation to add everyone people who live close by because I figure we will be less inclined to catch up if they know what i'm up to via fb 🙂

    1 agrees
  17. "No one swaps emails anymore." "No one calls." "No one…" That's because you don't either. The people who prefer to contact through email get emailed. Some get texts. I talk to people on the phone, though mostly my mother because I HATE just chatting on the phone (though nowhere near as much as I hate Skyping so, phone it is). If you and a friend have different preferred contact methods, duke it out or compromise. But lo and behold, those emails and phones go both ways. If you miss emailing people, then email them. It really is that simple.

    "I saw that on Facebook" is the greatest and favoritest thing ever for me. I don't have to fill people in on the basics of what's going on. That "catching up" phase doesn't have to happen and we can just jump right back into BUILDING our relationship rather than simply maintaining. "Hey, I saw on FB that you got a new job, how's that going?" "Hey, I saw on Twitter that you were in the ER last week, how's that concussion treating you?" "Give me the juicy details about that Vaguebook posting from yesterday!" It's not reducing the conversations you can have; it gives you conversational topics AND lets you skip the stupid little stuff public backstory that you have to tell anyway to get to the more personal parts of the conversations.

    And the best part: I get to connect with people when I'm awake and available, while they connect with me when THEY are awake and available. Even if we live on opposite sides of the world. Even if they're morning people and I'm not. It's socializing without needing a group calendar to schedule daily happy hours just to catch up with everyone. It allows you to be closer to people you love and want to be closer to, rather than being forced to interact with people who have the same geographic location, schedule and lifestyle you do.

    2 agree
  18. I did this recently too! In January it all just became too much for me- finishing grad school, planning my wedding… LIFE! So I decided to deactivate the timesuck that is Facebook. I went through withdrawal as well for a little, and then it was great. I loved not knowing what people were doing every second of every day and I loved the reverse- people not knowing what I was doing!

    I did miss baby pictures, pet pictures, etc, but not having Facebook meant that I spent less time scrolling through my news feed, which would send me to different blogs/articles to read that seemed interesting. I texted a few people that I deactivated my account. A few people in my family asked if they had offended me and why did I defriend them- I told them not to worry, I'll be back someday.

    Someday ended up being 3 months later when my first nephew was born! I wanted to be able to see pictures when posted etc, so I'm back. Being back is nice, but I do not have the app on my phone and I do not post every thought in my head, every action I am doing or every place I go.

    I truly think that everyone should deactivate Facebook for a little while, just to get it out of their systems. It was great for me. 🙂

  19. " My real life updates were no longer important because I had already updated the world via Facebook."

    THIS is why I don't post anything important to me on Facebook.

    I am actually writing my masters thesis on friendship dynamics on Facebook, so this post caught my attention. Facebook has truly redefined interpersonal relationships. Think of all the birth announcements and wedding photos. Gone are the days of mail announcements and surprise phone calls. It's as if these things aren't worth celebrating anymore because of how easy it is to "like" and "share" the content as a means of congratulations.

    I am also a lot younger than you. I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, and I have come to the same conclusion. The way we did friendship in the 90s seems to be at the tail-end of the phone call and play date dynamic. It is ingrained into my earliest memories, so Facebook has come as a disappointment to me. Unfortunately I have to use it because it's the social standard for keeping in touch, and as a human who likes communicating and community, I find that necessary.

    The culminating generation knows no difference. I wonder what they will think of Facebook once they develop critical thinking skills.

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