Facebook recently announced that it now has over 2 billion monthly users. This makes its “population” larger than that of China, the US, Mexico and Japan combined. Its popularity, and with it the influence it has in society, is beyond dispute. But for many the experience of actually using the site fluctuates somewhere between the addictive and the annoying. Our new research shows that the reason for this is very simple. It’s all to do with other people, and how we feel about them.
For Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and colleagues, the ethos behind the site is straightforward. It aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. By offering individuals the chance to connect with friends and share meaningful content, it aims to strengthen relationships and community ties.
The fact that this is a rather idealistic picture of society hasn’t prevented the site from flourishing. Yet, examining what people actually do on the site, how they interact with each other, and what they feel about the behaviour of friends and acquaintances, shows that the truth is rather more complex.
We surveyed and selectively interviewed a network of over 100 Facebook users. Our findings show how we continue to use the site and remain connected to people through it even though they often annoy or offend us. But instead of challenging them or severing ties, we continue to use Facebook to silently watch them – and perhaps even take pleasure from judging them.
In other words, Facebook reflects the dynamics at the heart of all real human relationships. Just as in their offline life, people try to open up and bond with each other while simultaneously having to cope with the everyday frictions of friendship.