Losing face

Social networking has become an integral part of our online lives, with Facebook leading the way.

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By  James Wilkinson Published  July 19, 2008

Social networking has become an integral part of our online lives, with Facebook leading the way. But in its web of friends, messaging and pictures lies a more sinister life of paranoia, spying and deception. James Wilkinson considers the new breed of problems that arise when you mix the social cauldron.

You might not like it, but the opening of Facebook to the world at large in 2006 marked the final stage of the internet's development from highfalutin diversion for geeks to an integral, organic part of modern society.

Oh, there were other social networking sites before that, of course, but they were always too niche: LiveJournal was for angsty teens, Bebo was for kids and MySpace was for bands and music -fans.

But Facebook coupled its simple, unthreatening colour scheme and intuitive layout with a seemingly endless supply of applications and general tat, thus appealing to both the less web-savvy older generation and technophilic youngsters.

Suddenly anyone of any age could locate friends, relatives and old high school crushes and maintain contact with them all through a single, easily-updated website.

The ‘web 2.0' era had arrived. But this brave new world comes at a cost, especially if you're as neurotic as me, because the merging of real life and the virtual online wrold of the internet has resulted in a new line of explosives being strewn across the social minefield.

Exaggeration? Not really. The impact of Facebook on real-life relationships can be immense. At what point in a budding relationship, for example, can you reasonably announce to Facebook that you are actually going out? It's not like it used to be - you'd be seen around town together, word would slowly get around and no pressure would be on anyone.

But now you might as well call a press conference or something, because at the press of a button it's all official and announced to the world. And it's not a decision that can be made unilaterally, either; you don't want to have to back down on that announcement so soon after making it.

It works the other way, too, of course. Take a friend of mine, whom we shall call ‘Robin' because that's his name: sick of having the detail of his life placed online, and not wanting to decipher the Facebook privacy controls, he decided to turn off his relationship indicator, only for the website to blurt out ‘Robin is no longer in a relationship' to everyone on his friends list, resulting in a flurry of concerned friends calling to console him.

And as lovely as that may seem, he assures me that the tenth repetition of that conversation was considerably less heartening than the first.

Other issues

Another danger inherent in Facebook is the merging of separate friend clusters. Chances are, the way you talk to your pals is different from the way you talk to your boss. And I certainly hope that the way you talk to your spouse is different from the way that you talk to your parents. But get everybody on Facebook and suddenly those subtleties are lost.

Those incriminating pictures from the party the other weekend might be hilarious to your best friends, but will your boss feel the same? Or the neighbour whose hedge you got so hilariously stuck in? And those ironic jokes about hating Americans are really funny until your patriotic friend from North Carolina reads your message wall.

But worse than having your friends hate each other is having them actually get along. There can be nothing more nerve-wracking than discovering that two friends, both of whom have dirt on you, have buddied up. Because who's going to be the one topic of conversation that they both definitely share? Uh-huh.

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