I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena that I’ve been experiencing since the launch of Facebook Places that I’m going to argue could negatively damage both the product and people’s social lives in general. I’m going to dub this the “Keeping up with the Joneses effect”.

As soon as Facebook Places launched, I had a couple of my friends who were essentially, sneak bragging full time on it. That is, they were constantly posting about all the hip bars & restaurants they were visiting in a very casual, FYI manner.

The real reason for such behavior is that people are using it as a form of identity construction. “I am at place X so, therefore, I am the the type of person who is Y”. But such overt displays of bragging are socially frowned upon so instead, a utility narrative is constructed. “The reason I’m posting on there to let my friends know where I’m at so they could possibly join me” (foursquare used “the reason I’m checking in is to collect badges” as their plausible cover). What this allows people to do is use the utility narrative as a means to plausibly deny that their true purpose was identity construction, aka they are sneak bragging.

This is something that happens all the time in real life (I’ll be telling you about a funny thing that happened to me and casually drop in a reference that it all happened at this hip bar, the real purpose was to let you know I’m a hip person without it seem like I was bragging) so the fact that Facebook Places has made this behavior much more efficient to perform  is a mildly annoying but tolerably narcissictic addition to my social life. What I think will be interesting is what happens to the rest of us.

I don’t lead nearly as interesting a life as I have most people believe I do but, because my friends are not with me the majority of the time, I’ve been able to exploit that ambiguity to craft a socially interesting identity for myself. I constantly give off the impression that my nights and weekends are packed with exciting & socially validating activities instead of the actual boring sitting at home alone that usually happens. I’m not unique in this, I informally polled a couple of friends and they all admitted to some degree of social massaging for the purposes of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Facebook Places removes my ability to perform such social massaging. The use of Facebook Places as a sneak bragging tool means that implicit narratives are created by the absense of activity. If I check into hip bar #1 tonight and only use Places again to check into hip bar #2 a month later, that must mean nothing of sufficient interest happened in the intervening time. Before, I could casually mention hip bar #2 the next time I saw you and let you infer that I go to hip bars all the time but I can’t do that anymore because if I did go to hip bars all the time, I would have checked in to every single one of them on Facebook Places.

So, now that I’m confronted by the few of my peers who actually are leading the socially interesting lives they claim they are so I am faced with three possible reactions:

  1. I can actively change my behaviour to become competetive with my friends
  2. I can accept my new identity and reveal to the world just how pathetic my social life is or
  3. I can construct an external reason why I refuse to use Facebook Places in order to maintain the plausible fiction about my social life.

While some insecure teenagers might adopt option 1 and I’ll bet there will be at least a few geeks with an extreme case of stockholm syndrome towards Facebook that will adopt option 2, option 3 is, by far, the most preferable one. If I can claim Facebook Places is a horrible invasion of my privacy of that it’s a meaningless and shallow ritual or even that I prefer *experiencing* an event to *telling* people about the event, then I have figured out a way maintain that plausible fiction that I actually am able to keep up with the Joneses in my network. This is not to say that I will even know this is what I’m doing. For most people, this degree of rationalization happens well below the concious layer.

Thus, I predict that if I’m correct, over the next few months, Facebook Places is going to come under an extreme amount of criticism. What’s more, it will be the type of criticism which geeks are uniquely unsuitable to handle because it will be vague, mutually contradictory and factually incorrect. The geek instinct is to try and educate the users about why their complaints are invalid without realizing that there was never any desire for the complaints to be valid in the first place. If this does happen, the only way for Facebook to make Places relevant is to address the core issue for these people which is the creeping fear that we are, indeed, not keeping up with the Joneses and everyone will finally know.

Responses

  1. trond says:

    August 24th, 2010 at 5:39 pm (#)

    I see this in reverse – it gives me a nice cover for being nerdy and paranoid about privacy. I can claim that I'm not using it in order to maintain some sort of mystery about my social activities – that I'm not using it to provide myself with the social cover you mention at the beginning. That seems a much more accessible as an explanation than trying to argue privacy policy with people who think I'm just being quaint.

    My friends already know I don't go out that often – maybe this works for people who are faking it and telegraphing that fact, but not if you've not already been bothering to fake it.

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