From the Irish Independent's Review section, Saturday September 19 2009
Why we're all signing up to be poked,
By Susan Daly
Now that the social-networking website Facebook is about to achieve one million users in Ireland, it means that one in four of us are chronicling our lives, loves and sandwich fillings in the internet village.
Colm Long, Facebook's head of online operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, made the announcement this week alongside news that Facebook has now sailed past the 300-million user mark globally and its finances are finally in the black.
"We would love to do something to mark reaching one million Irish users and we expect that to happen in the next few weeks," said Long. One wonders what a party of Facebook users would look like: hundreds of people hunched over their laptops sending a 'friend' request to the profile of the cute girl sitting right beside them?
That, of course, is a ridiculous scenario. Facebook now attracts a much wider demographic of users than the geeky college students it was limited to five years ago. A current advertisement running on radio for sliced bread has aul' Mr Brennan horrified at the thought of young wans 'poking' each other on Facebook. (There is a setting on the site where you can send a virtual 'poke' to a friend to say hello.)
Mr Brennan's horror is disingenuous. The 35-plus age group is one of the fastest growing on the site these days. This relates to my personal experience: in the past few months, I have been befriended by three aunts, one uncle and my boyfriend's parents. I have now seen enough pictures of their holiday frolics to want to poke my eyes out.
One thing is for certain: Facebook has revolutionised social communication. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It has tapped into the very basic human need for company and interaction. Perhaps the most popular feature of Facebook is its 'News Feed', where the activities and status updates of all a user's friends are streamed in a live feed on the user's home page. They can take in, at a glance, what is happening in their social circle at that very moment in time.
Microblogging sites like Twitter have picked up on the popularity of this kind of instant community message board. Social scientists even have a term for this constant online contact, "ambient awareness". For the most part, the information an individual picks up from this incessant online chatter might seem banal. But Irish Twitter and Facebook pages were the first port of call for many of the eyewitnesses to this week's crash between a Luas tram and a Dublin bus. Within minutes of it happening, photographs of the scene were being shared on Twitter along with advice to avoid O'Connell Street.
The microblogging element of Facebook and the sites that followed its lead can lead to networking possibilities that were hitherto inconceivable for most people.
To give an example, I sent out a message on my Facebook and Twitter profiles two weeks ago asking for recommendations on the purchase of a Netbook. Several IT experts posted replies and within an hour, I had made an informed purchase. I, in return, have given media advice, job leads and movie and book recommendations to online contacts. It's like outsourcing your life to a group of consultants.
Yet we muddled along pretty happily without Facebook for pretty much all of human history. Its critics complain that it has created a demand where there previously was none. The decision to 'opt out' of the site becomes a difficult one when you realise that you will no longer be able to keep an eye on what information or photographs are being posted of you on contacts' profiles. It is almost necessary to remain on the site strictly to monitor your online reputation.
Social psychologists have spoken up about the actual value of 'friends' on Facebook, some of whom a user might not see for years. The time spent connecting with these ephemeral contacts online eats into time spent on face-to-face socialising.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar deduced 10 years ago that the human brain only has room for 150 personal connections.
As Facebook users find themselves making friends with old schoolmates, innumerable work colleagues and other people who would otherwise naturally fade out of their lives, the 'Dunbar number' would suggest that this activity risks diluting the quality of their relationships.
The time it takes to keep all these connections intact can lead to addictive behavioural habits.
Many employers have blocked Facebook from their internet server because they fear it diminishes workers' productivity. In April of this year, a study from Ohio State University made a link between lower grades and students who are heavy Facebook users.
With technology becoming more and more of a participatory activity, it may be that fewer of us in the future will feel able to opt out for fear of being left out of the loop. And where is the fun in that?