E-mail, it seems, has become yesterday's news. While checking e-mail used to be our primary reason for going online, we now devote more of our online time to surfing social networks, according to new numbers from Nielsen. We spend 23 percent of our online time surfing around social networks like Facebook, while we only spend 8.3 percent of that time checking e-mail.
That news isn't necessarily surprising to me: I can spend 10 minutes on Facebook and get caught up on the activities of 25 different people, while spending that same 10 minutes on e-mail would allow me to delete a lot of useless junk mail and maybe read an actual message or two. But, if I really stop to think about it, Facebook isn't really keeping me better connected to most people. Here are five reasons why.
Quality Versus Quantity
Sure, some of the interactions I have on Facebook are what I would call quality. This morning alone, I saw new pictures of my niece and nephew and made plans to visit my sister-in-law. But I also spent some time looking at pictures of someone I barely knew in high school. We haven't seen each other since graduation, and -- let's face it -- we weren't even that close back then. But we're Facebook friends and she posted new family pictures, so I took a look. I also saw a daily update on wedding plans posted by another Facebook friend; this one a casual acquaintance who I might not even recognize if I ever did see her in person. But I now know that she jogged five miles this morning in hopes of fitting into her wedding dress when her big day arrives this fall.
Am I more in touch with these people because of the information they shared on Facebook? Maybe. But maybe I would be more in touch with the people I really care about if I spent that time communicating directly with them, instead of reading updates posted by people who are little more than strangers.
It's Passive, Not Active
That brings me to my second point about Facebook: much of what we do on the site is passive, especially in terms of communicating. I can read status updates and look at pictures -- even those posted by close friends -- and feel as though I am in touch with them. I know, for example, that one of my good friends is sore from her yoga class last night, and I know that my niece and nephew had a great time at an amusement park. But I never asked my friend about her yoga class specifically, or talked to my brother about his trip to New Hampshire, and chances are, I never will. Facebook lets me take in a lot of information on the surface, but wouldn't I be a better friend (and a better aunt) if I actually spent that time communicating directly with people instead?
Everyone Is On Facebook ... Except for Those Two People Who Aren't
Nielsen is exactly right: the more time I spend on Facebook, the less time I spend on e-mail. And while it may seem that the whole world is on Facebook, that's not exactly true. In my closest circle of friends, there are two or three people who refuse to join. And those people often find themselves excluded from conversations shared by the rest of us. Everyone who is on Facebook will start talking about information or photos we've seen posted on the site, and will talk about them as if they were common knowledge. Which they are to us...but not to the people who aren't on the site. So Facebook has created something of a social divide between the people who are on there, and those who aren't.
We Share The Same Level of Intimacy With Everyone
We all know that Facebook has had more than its share of privacy problems, and I'm not interested in debating them here. Everyone takes a different tactic toward handling them: some people (like my friends mentioned above) refuse to join the site, while others have abandoned ship. I know that Facebook offers some granular controls that allow me to adjust who sees what info I post and when. And though I have adjusted my privacy settings, I still treat Facebook as if everything I put up there is for public consumption. I never post anything -- a status update or a photo or a link --- that I wouldn't want my boss or a prospective employer to see. That means that my work contacts and closest friends get the same treatment, and the same semi-sanitized look at my life. Over e-mail, of course, this isn't the case: I can share real opinions and communicate more honestly, as I would face-to-face.
What About Face-to-Face Time?
Nielsen's study tracks the time we spend on Facebook instead of on e-mail or surfing news Web sites. What it doesn't track is the time we spend on Facebook instead of talking with people face-to-face. While the time we spend on social networks can help us keep track of friends who live far away, it can also detract from the time we should actually be spending with people who live nearby...and in some cases, in the same house. My husband is a new convert to Facebook and we haven't become the couple who communicates through Facebook posts ... at least not yet! But I can see how it would be an easy trap to stumble into, and it's one that I'll work to avoid.
I'm not completely down on Facebook. I do often feel like the 25 minutes I spend on Facebook are more fruitful than an hour spent on e-mail, and I love the ability to stay connected to friends and family who live far away. But I'm not fooling myself into thinking that time spent on Facebook is quality communication time.