More than a Smile: First Impressions via Facebook

 

Photo courtesy of Instagram, all my smiling pictures were much too cheesy.

A couple of weeks ago, the reading list for my graduate program was sent out – be still my heart and my 1-click purchasing finger (Amazon, you are a genius) – and to no one’s surprise one of our classmates was inspired to make a Facebook group for all of us. When you have a bunch of people willing to read/eat/breathe the web, it only makes sense that my entire Social Science of the Internet cohort was on board in less than 20 minutes (alright, it would have been 20 minutes without time zone differences).

Last week, when sharing with my dental hygienist that I was going away to study (I divulged this for the purpose of explaining that my coverage would expire soon, I don’t drop it into every conversation), she made some school-related small talk about my program of choice. Then with a mirror, many gloved fingers and the horrid scraping tool in my mouth, she asked me point blank, “So do you think Facebook is good or bad?” Swallowing some tooth polish (the Internet won’t tell me why that’s bad but I’m sure it is), I explained to her that I think it’s simply a tool and how people choose to use it is what results in positive or negative outcomes. Of course, I realize it’s more complex than this in that the way our tools are designed can hold political, economic, and gendered biases (how different would FB be without the ads and third-party apps? How about if you had to pay to access certain features?), but the hygienist was about to take some photos of my cavity so I simply left it there. I didn’t want to impede my tooth from being immortalized in the hall of fame for ‘things that could have been prevented by flossing’.

My personal bias is that I love Facebook. I feel that it simplifies and facilitates human interaction in an extremely seamless and rapid way that is necessary in my fast-paced life – see, I’ve really bought into it! While I’m aware that I spend more time lurking on my news feed than actually communicating, I feel that knowing these tidbits about people in my life (many of them long distance) actually brings me closer to them in some way. Also, as a sociologist I have a certain affinity for simply observing people and FB is much less creepy than staking out a bench at the mall all day (though when I’m 75+ you can bet that’s what I’ll be doing, no one ever suspects the seniors).

All this to say that of course I joined the Facebook group and I’m definitely glad it exists. I’ve been checking it neurotically ever since I turned off those annoying automatic e-mail updates. And I’ve already friended two of my classmates, a rare and risky move since FB’s privacy settings have changed. However, I feel that there is less to be private about in the academic world in comparison with the work world where TMI (too much info) could lead to a whole rash of awkward board meetings and lunchroom encounters. People expect you to be radical at school, right? Well, I won’t shave my head yet… At the same time, there are also some odd and surreal aspects of being able to check out my cohort three months before any of us actually meet in person. Here are some observations in bullet form:

The Good

  • We’re already making connections. People are uniting by finding similarities, such as country of origin and college (I already found another Kellogian);
  • We’re sharing information, tips and resources. I chatted with another Canadian about ways of navigating all the paperwork that needs to get done before autumn.
  • We’re all in the same boat. The best part of the page is that I can rationalize about my classmates as other people. They are people just like me who sometimes make grammatical errors in their posts and use emoticons for the heck of it :-)*

The Bad/Weird

  • Facebook is an impression management tool (says them and them): depending on how much effort you’re willing to put into it, FB allows you to create a flawless image of your life. I mean, no one posts photos of the day they sat on the couch in lululemons, eating Häagen-Dazs, watching an entire season of Pretty Little Liars (yes, there are 22 episodes in season 1). While all my classmates look like nice, friendly people, I can’t help but be a bit intimidated by the neat things they post. However, I feel like this is the price you pay for friending anyone with a remotely interesting life (there’s my bias in favour of FB again).
  • Due to the one-dimensional quality of Facebook communications (no body language and no stable context across time or audience/’collapsed contexts‘**), I feel like I need to be pretty guarded and careful in my posting. While first impressions are always tricky, if you bungle something up in real life there is sometimes the opportunity to save yourself through a smile or the other person’s ability to say “well, she was suffering from extreme culture shock so I’ll give her another chance, poor Canadian.” But generally, if you post something on the Internet, your audience receives it at face value. Therefore, if it appears that I’m not the sharpest tool in the toolshed, it will be there for all to see, plain as day and long-lasting.
From the number of bullets listed under each header, it is clear that the benefits of social networking outweigh the risks… Just kidding, but in all seriousness, Facebook and online networking is a reality of everyday life for most people. It’s not going away so the trick is to extend your media literacy in order to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits, such as being able to feel a little less alone when heading into a new school in a new city and a totally different country.

*Actually, I think there are TOO MANY EMOTICONS in the world; everyone should read this: How to Use Fewer Emoticons

**Links to an excellent article by the excellent danah boyd retrieved from her excellent website: www.danah.org

One thought on “More than a Smile: First Impressions via Facebook

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  1. Interesting, I used to be super into socializing via the internet but then I partially became afraid I’d be extremely awkward in person because I’m not working on my in-person communication skills as often.

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