Perception Is Reality

Facebook: Social Tool or Alternate Reality?

Posted on: January 4, 2008

I believe I speak for quite a few, if not all of the people using this tool (and for those, not using it for that matter) that when we think, say or hear the word “Facebook” we think social networking. Other things we may think include keeping in touch, becoming friends, and so on.

However, is Facebook a technology that is purely a social network? Or is it a tool? In other words, is Facebook an alternate reality or is it a tool that boosts or complements the growth of social relationships: an extension of physical social reality? In the following article, I will aim to discuss the two ideas by taking  into account a number of features of Facebook, drawing a conclusion.

How many of us randomly add people whose profiles we find interesting? This includes those people we consider “sad”, having no lives: Yes, those “franshippers” as the term has become common on Orkut (A Google Company).

A quick analysis reveals that with so many applications and widgets that add flavor to the service (the term is used loosely), it is indeed an alternate reality; a world within a world. Think about it: We talk to people, we play games, we look at photographs, buy/sell and/or trade, plan events and so on. With technology advancing so rapidly, minds becoming open to the idea of virtual reality in ways never dreamt of before, the list is perhaps endless. All those activities we perform in our daily physical lives, we are also able to perform such in the virtual world on Facebook.

Look at it the other way. Is Facebook really an alternate reality? A key feature of our non-virtual world is that at any point, we can talk to anyone whether or not we’ve previously met, we make inferences about individuals and from there, we decide whether we like them or not. We are introduced to new people through our friends and colleagues. All of this is not true on Facebook – well, for the most part anyway. A key feature on Facebook is limiting or blocking others from viewing profiles. In the real world, even if we do not want to talk to anyone or make friends with anyone, there is no mechanism that stops others from stalking us through our daily activities and making judgements.

When we go to a party or a meeting, we meet new people and before leaving we ask them, “Do you have Facebook?” I’m pretty sure quite a few of you reading this have done so. When we ask this, we are implying one of several things about our relationship:
I would like to stay in touch,” “I would like to get to know you more,” “I think we would make good friends,” and even, “I think we would make a good couple.”

What I am trying to demonstrate, then, is that Facebook is more of a social tool than society itself. It answers the key question in communication in everyday life, that Dalton Kehoe asks, “Who am I and who are you to me in this conversation” and “What happens next,” particularly the latter. It helps to further this relationship, which may not be more than mere accquaintancy.

To demonstrate this point further, let us take into account the Friend Request feature. When an individual “adds” another as his friend, a pop-in window opens asking to further define how we know an individual. Are the individuals family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, members of a group, or particularly, know each other through a third individual. This shows two things: Firstly, the term “friend” has a range of meanings. Secondly, it is an extension of physical social reality: we add individuals we have already had contact with in the past in various shapes or forms.

Facebook is also like a chronological catalogue. It records events and memories using the RSS feeds and the photo album. Not only so, it allows individuals to conduct discourse by commenting on photographs. All of this can also be done in the physical world, but there are limitations: as soon as a word is spoken, a statement made, it disappears into the ether. There is no visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory or olfactory records. The only records that exist are the ones stored in the brain – unless ofcourse a selection of tools are used to make formal records, such as video cameras, voice recorders, and type. This is what Facebook does, it makes these records exist through time and space, something more than just the short and long term memory of human beings. Facebook is essentially using new tools in a way in combination with old tools to make records. Therefore, it may be considered to complement methods of social recording.

While it is true that the “Profile” and “About Me” parts serve for new individuals to make inferences and judgements about a person they take a second look at, it also acts as a reference: from the least obvious such as what gifts to buy, to the most obvious such as the books one likes or dislikes, these sections allow for a friend to refer back to. Should we say this to such and such person? Will they take it well or will they get angry or upset? In context of the physical social reality, our judgements are based on past experiences with this individual, whether directly or indirectly, our references mostly coming from memory. Where two individuals meet, not all may be said about hobbies, likes and dislikes, it is noted that a lot more is said about oneself online, partly because we believe that no immediate judgment will be made, and more because we may not have to immediately react to these judgments. Then consider, is Facebook alternate reality, or an extension?

Let us now briefly look at the Marketplace. The Marketplace allows individuals to list items for sale or items one wants to purchase, or even trade. We do this in addition to letting our friends know about these developments or showcasing them in a store. This is exactly what is done on Facebook. The differences are that items are not physically existent, tangible and available for testing. There are on the other hand, photographs of the item, some of them showing the item in use. Just like these “items” are showcased in stores, so it is done online for an indefinite period. The difference is that the product is available to a much wider, global audience. Is Facebook then not an extension of social reality?

By now those reading this are wondering about, at the least, about the paragraph pertaining to the Marketplace. This is, according to me, more disputed than clear-cut in defining Facebook’s role. Listings may serve as an extension to business, but there is no discontinuity if the products are not displayed in stores or having friends informed about. On the other hand, items that are required (Willing to purchase, trade) are constantly existent, atleast visually in text and images. These stay solely in the back of the mind of potential customers and friends, otherwise.

With so many ideas, some perhaps disputed, how is the question about Facebook’s nature answered? How do we draw a conclusion that Facebook is a social universe that exists independently of physical society? How do we draw a conclusion that Facebook is an extension of physical social reality? The answer lies in individual human activity and approach. Each individual uses Facebook to a varying degree with varying ideas about what goals it will help them achieve. For an individual who finds it a burden to work without digital technology, Facebook is definitely an important tool (or rather, array of tools) for my day to day living. On the other hand, for those we call hermits, they form an entire different world where their personalities differ, almost as a mirror image online. For them, Facebook may be reality and not an extension to such. For the average user (and by average I do not mean mediocre), however, Facebook allows to accomplish certain tasks much more conveniently. Log on and leave a message on the wall or send a private message instead of calling on thep hone and leaving a message on voicemail. Or comment on photographs and previous events.

I believe the main difference between Facebook and physical social reality is the time lapse. In actuality, conversations are conducted spontaneously and immediately, whereas, even when both individuals of a conversation are online, there is still a time lapse between refreshing the page, waiting for a reply while the individual does something else. In ways this is painful. In a society where time means everything (including, but not limited to money), we have lost patience. On the other hand, it is convenient: we know that when the individual logs on, they will read the message and so we need not have the person physically present and have a live conversation. Thus, Facebook serves features that physical society does not yet allow us, acting as an extension to physical social reality.

 I would really really appreciate some critical feedback on this. This work may be a bit superficial, so by all means, if there is anything you would like to add or refute, please do so.


12 Responses to "Facebook: Social Tool or Alternate Reality?"

Really good roundup here. One concern I have with Facebook (which I have voiced often) is the fact that FB is a closed system. The troubles that Scoble went through today would be totally avoided if Zuckerberg decided to create a platform that was truly beneficial to all of us.

Hey Vasta. Thanks for the comment. I don’t know what Scoble is but I’m giong to check it out.

Oh I just realized. I was JUST on scoble’s blog.

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Facebook is not just an alternate reality it is all of our exhibitionist manifestations.. channeled through bits of code!!

Great blog Btw… checked out the pics as well.. amazing!


Thanks faisal.

to stretch your argument further, i think what would have helped is if you gave examples by streamlining some of your ideas. i think you could have used the perspectives of the common generations that use facebook. for example an unemployed youth who only has partying all day and night as their goal in life versus a 20 something- business woman who has nothing on their mind but to make money and a living in life.

is facebook a social tool or an alternate reality? i think it’s both. it’s a social tool to boost the egos of the anti social, social, or the follower. it feeds the desires of those who are not able to achieve what they what to achieve in the reality, so they attempt to boost their egos and achieving their goals into what you have noted in your article through the ‘alternate reality/virtual reality’. they base their activities on facebook as if it’s for real. however all it is, is them sitting in front of the computer spending a half an hour, to an hour, or more, which leads to possibly everyday spending the same amount of time, which then becomes a part of their life and erases every aspect of the activities and rituals they have once practiced before facebook which was their real reality. for example: daily exercising, eating 3 meals a day, and meeting people out in the market the old fashion way. then when their internet gets taken away or someone steals their laptop, or they all of a sudden lose access from the internet, they get a huge smack in the face when reality finally hits them. i don’t want to dabble into my ideas of what this will lead to next, but anyway i really enjoyed reading your article. thank you for that 😉

Hi Celna,

You raise some very important points. Thanks so much for sharing, I think everyone who reads this post will appreciate your comment 🙂

Nicely written article, and I agree with a recent comment:
Social tool or alternate reality? It is certainly both. However I can’t help but sense the insinuation that the drivers to people’s behaviours on facebook are purely negative; or that those who spend a lot of time there are people whose life lack a reality they love– and thus seek an alternate reality.

As a working mum living a wonderful life (giggling everyday, gigging on the weekends) and also working in a highly competitive digital marketing environment, I think my personal experience and learnings in facebook warrants me asking you to give this a thought:

Quite simply, the success of facebook and social networks marks a dynamic shift in how people are using the Internet. We’ve evolved from just searching for information, to creating and participating in social spaces with other individuals through the Internet. Beyond emails and web blogs, using Facebook is based upon the hive mentality where people identify themselves as part of a group. There is actually nothing wrong with people in this generation revelling in the fact that in Online Communities, traditional communication barriers of location no longer exist….

Of course some people do overdo it…But connexions can and do exist with people who know how to extract maximum value out of this medium.

vj baby k

I would be lying if I did not say that I fell into the social network trap on the site, now I no longer think about looking at “my friends” in such a voyeuristic, digital-derived joy way.
If people are my friends, I will be treated as such, not mere objects for satisfaction meant to justify their pitfalls in their life or used as a template to compare themselves to. Real communication to me in life now means communicating and networking with those who are relevant in the here and now in the present, not presently online on some site. Believe me, I have been better off without it.

It’s silly really. Wow! I am so insightful for posting that witty or funny picture! Look at me; I’m so popular. Look at all my friends commenting and liking; they must find me hilarious! Facebook is great!” I am so popular, look at all the attention I am getting.

Yeah that is not for me really and a computer can’t give you attention!?

When asked by a person, “What happened? You fell off Facebook?” I should say, “What happened? You fell off of life.” Well I am so sorry I no longer offer everyone the convenience to just pop into my world whenever they want. To me, interaction should mean something. If 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, then I was only communicating with 10 percent of my overall potential communicative self. I choose to be part of the 90 percent.

Awesome post AJ!!

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About the Author…

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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