Social media, sharing and the erosion of personal boundaries

Early this year, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d been on the social network before it was the phenomenon that it is now, when it was an invitation-only Ivy-League platform. That was in 2006. Back then I was returning to London from living in South Africa and decided to open an account in order to  keep in touch with the friends and colleagues that I’d made there; friends who lived all over the world. It came in handy when I moved to the US just over a year later.

Five years on and Facebook had become something that I’d come to detest. I found it increasingly intrusive, and it seemed that there was an growing, and for me uncomfortable, blurring of the boundaries between private and public. I also found that rather than bringing me closer to people, it created a lazy, effort-free pseudo-intimacy in which one feels as if they know what is going on with someone just because you are seeing their (highly edited and highly selected) photos and updates. Real friendships were in some cases starting to become Facebook friendships, and friends expected you to know their news from their Facebook wall.

In the new social era, we are being conditioned to believe that human beings have an innate need and desire to share everything about themselves. This belief has become widespread. However, I wonder where exactly this idea came from, if not only from those who are benefitting handsomely from our sharing and who have their own agenda for making us believe that it is in our DNA to tell everyone everything, including intimate details of our lives that would previously only our closest confidantes would have been privy to.

Being on Facebook and other social networks  has taught me a great deal about myself and about people. One thing I have learned is that while there may be people with whom I am happy to catch up with once every few years, I don’t feel any particular need to stay permanently attached to them. At first, it was great to reconnect with old school mates and colleagues, to hear their news and to see that they were doing well. But after a while, it became irritating to have to see some of them appearing regularly in my feed. I have never had a problem with building and maintaining good relationships pre-Facebook and I came to the conclusion that if we’d really wanted to remain in constant contact, we would have already done so.

Secondly, I was surprised by the voyeuristic nature of the platform. Often, I felt as though I was getting TMI, seeing photos and updates that I didn’t really want to see or hear. It continues to amaze me that people will boast very personal photographs on Facebook for the world to see. Likewise, I felt that some people had an unhealthy interest in my photos and updates. I am interested in human nature, yes. What I am not so interested in the minutiae of other people’s lives. Nor, frankly, do I believe anyone else should be all that interested in mine. I remember a phrase that was popular in primary school: MYOB, or Mind Your Own Business. I still think that holds.

Talking of photos, I also realized that I did not like having a permanent past stored online. I wanted to be able to remove things at will, just as in my ordinary life I will periodically get rid of, or pack away, unnecessary items, consigning them either to the wastebin or to memory, to be retrieved at some later time when I felt like reminiscing in the latter case. While I was able to take down albums of my own, which I did, I was not able to take down the hundreds of photos taken over the years by other people which I had been tagged in.

To deal with this, I set up filters… But even that became a headache as I had to figure out what I wanted different people to see and then manage ensuring that different people were on the right lists so that they would only see what I wanted them to see. At first, Facebook had been for close friends. Then family started joining. Then people I didn’t know who’d read my work or seen me on TV, or heard me on the radio started adding me. Then people in my professional network started friending me too. In the real world, each of these different groups would be encountered in different spaces; spaces appropriate to my relationship and interaction with them. On Facebook where everyone is a “friend”, the sense of an appropriate space relative to the type of relationship one has with different individuals is gone.

By the end I was attempting to work out who was what type of “friend” and what type of relationship I had with that “friend”. Did I want X former colleague to see shots of me in my bikini on holiday?

Then I started de-friending people. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them, just that I realized that by my definition of ‘friend’, we really weren’t friends at all. Acquaintances, passers-by, perhaps… but not friends. Therefore, they should not have access to my inner world and personal information in the way that a real friend would. But in Facebook world, what is a ‘friend’ anyway?

Another thing that was becoming more apparent was the lack of filter that people have online. I have been aware through my professional writing that when people make comments online, they often say things that they would not in person. In the early days of Facebook, I’d set up an anonymous honesty box which was supposed to be a fun thing whereby I’d ask a silly question such as “would you kiss me?” and then get answers posted anonymously. It was all harmless in the beginning, but a few years later, I started receiving nasty and abusive anonymous messages. This meant that people who were apparently “friends” thought that it was appropriate to message me anonymously and insult me, and my work in particular, on Facebook. Since I didn’t know who these people were, that further added to a sense of being intruded on and as well as making me feel suspicious.

The various liking and comment features on Facebook encourage this idea that we have the right to, and should, add our opinions to everybody’s personal affairs. Yet, is it healthy for people to comment on your life in this way? On Facebook, we start to to measure our own personal lives in terms of other people’s opinions. Do you “like” my photo? Do you like my comment? Do you like my update? The real question is does it really matter what anybody else thinks? I think there’s a difference between seeking comments and feedback on my work, which is designed to provoke conversation and discussion and more opinion, and getting comments on my personal information.

I started using Facebook more as a business tool, posting links to my work and so on. Then some friends started complaining that I was talking too much about business and that they felt I was being too self-promotional!!

In the end, I concluded that what does and has always worked for me are close intimate, genuine relationships with a few people. True friendships. And those could be conducted in a much simpler fashion, using email and the telephone, and yes even writing letters. It’s certainly less of a headache. Professional relationships also need not exist on Facebook and not being on the network has not made an iota of difference for me professionally.

I’m 31 years old and was using the internet long before share, share, share became its mantra. However there are many young people who are being raised to believe that what’s private should is public. Determining how and in which way one shares oneself and one’s personal information should, in my view, require a certain amount of emotional and social intelligence as one works out  how best to communicate and what one wants to be received and how one wants to be understood and perceived in the world. Self-regulation is a core component of emotional development and maturity. I believe wholeheartedly in freedom, yet I also believe that freedom comes with responsibility. Maybe the mantra should be “share, but share responsibly”.

I use Twitter more now which I prefer, although I have my own reservations about that too (but for very different reasons which I will write about another time although I also continue to be shocked at what some people, especially younger ones, feel is appropriate to post on Twitter). For those close to me, I use good old email and the telephone. I’ve grown closer to people this way since those tools require genuine conversation and more substantive interaction.

In the bare-all culture of this generation, I like having boundaries. I do not think that everyone needs to know everything, nor that I need to share that much. Personally, I’m not driven to bare all. I cannot see the necessity, nor the efficacy, in it. The ones really benefitting are  the collectors of our data.

I’m not a Luddite – I believe that the internet is one of the greatest inventions to date; it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the world. My interest is in not just using the tools that are available, but doing so in ways that are truly beneficial.

It has been about 6 months now since I deactivated my Facebook account and it is actually one of the best things that I have done this year.

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