I remember it quite clearly, the day I first heard about Facebook. In April 2005, a somewhat more technologically-literate friend announced something about our university joining it over MSN. Curious, I had a peek. It wasn’t a case of love at first sight. Its usefulness was not particularly apparent. There were four people that I knew who used it. However, I knew that I’d either adopt it immediately or become the most obstinate of refuseniks, so later that day, I revisited the site and signed up, mainly out of curiosity.
Facebook was quite a different beast, back then. No ‘likes’, no posted items, no games, no status bar and certainly no cat videos. The fact that you publicly announced your friendship to the world seemed rather significant, as a student towards the end of my first year at university. This was a time of social flux, when many of my peers were redefining themselves. I was lucky enough to attend a relatively small, specialist institution, which was the first (and last) place that I met large numbers of people who shared my interests in Asian and Middle Eastern history and culture. As a result, it wasn’t for another seven or eight months that I actually added any of the people I felt indifferent towards from my school years.
It wasn’t until a few months later that we gained the status bar, so initially it was all about people’s profiles (things like the ‘Music’ section were considered terribly important, in terms of what they gave away about you). Once we did get it, it was limited to ‘I am…’ for another three years. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Previously a shy, almost secretive young man, I fully embraced my inner (and occasionally outer) Louis XIV, turning everything beyond the most basic of bodily functions into a public spectacle.
It would not be until the autumn of that year that Facebook would open to the public, and, if I’m brutally honest, it was much better as a means of connecting students at a collection of relatively elitist universities. In-jokes flourished, groups dedicated to incredibly ‘niche’ subjects (Bearded Lady of Guildford Appreciation Society, anyone?) proliferated rapidly. For the first time, I realised that people who weren’t afraid of reading books were out there, making popular culture.
However, for me, the main attraction of early Facebook was rather more prosaic.It enabled me to put names to the faces of classmates to whom I’d already been introduced several months before, but whose actual monikers had been forgotten amidst the tornado of social niceties that swept through my initial months at university.
I often wonder how different my life would have been if I hadn’t signed up that day, or if it had never existed at all. Now, some eight years after graduating, I can safely say that the friends from university that I am still in touch with are not necessarily the ones to whom I was especially close at the time, nor even the ones who remained in London afterwards (not as numerous a group as you might think), but the ones who are ‘good’ at Facebook. A good Facebooker is somebody who shares things that make you smile, one who comments on your posts and who actually replies to messages and event invitations.
Suffice to say, this is not most of them. Some simply never log on. Perhaps they no longer care about the people they spent their youth with. Perhaps it’s less painful, just to forget. There was a time, quite a few years ago, when there was a bit of a trend to announce to the world that you were going to delete your account and commit ‘Facebook suicide’. As far as I am aware, everyone I know that has ever done this has in fact reactivated their account within a few months and continued to use it regularly since.
Whatsapp is perhaps a more real threat to my social life. The shift from organising things via Facebook events and status updates (which can of course be tailored to the intended audience) to creating Whatsapp groups has served to reinforce existing cliques, or redefine them according to the agenda of their creator. Facebook served open things up -if you were hosting a party, you could always take a chance and invite people from a few different circles, or ask along that friendly acquaintance from your local. Now it’s much harder to expand your social circle, many friendship groups seem to be slowly ossifying, being almost impossible for new blood to break into.
I don’t know what the future will hold. As an undergrad, I certainly did not think that I would still be using Facebook ten years later. Perhaps it will wither away soon, to be replaced by something more nuanced and less time-consuming, or maybe it will become an indispensible part of our increasingly fixed online identities. Possibly both.