By Mary Chayko, Professor of Sociology, The College of Saint Elizabeth, and author of Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness and Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, both with SUNY Press. She can be found online at MaryChayko.com and on Twitter @MaryChayko
I came late to the social media party. My colleagues, students, friends and family were perplexed that I, an internet researcher, wasn’t on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social media sites. I admit that there was an irony to my studying and writing about the impact of technology on society but not using social media myself. But what few understood was that my decision not to join Facebook was very much a political act – until it became one I couldn’t make anymore.
As a sociologist, I recognize that as individuals we are required to contribute to the social institutions of which we are a part. We give time, energy and expertise to our workplaces, schools, churches, families. We turn over large portions of our paychecks to our governments. Some give their lives in military service, or suffer valiantly when their loved ones do so. In turn, we trust and hope that these institutions will be there for us, even protect us, when we need them. It’s a social contract.
Though we tend not to think about it very often, we also give these social institutions large amounts of data about our habits and our selves. Whenever we make a purchase, do our banking, fill out a form, pay our taxes, or surf the Net, we are submitting information about ourselves that we then lose control over. Computerized technology has permitted this to become a widespread, almost continuous practice.
I understand, though I don’t enjoy, the need for certain institutions to gather some of this data. But I usually have no idea what is being done with it or with whom it can be shared, or when, or under what circumstances. I recognize (although my research indicates that many people don’t) that the electronic mining for and tracking of my data results in my being profiled as a certain kind of citizen, consumer, worker, person. Essentially, I have been easily and electronically turned into a commodity to be sold to just the right advertiser or targeted for someone’s criminal eye or political tyranny.
I avoided Facebook for years in order to avoid submitting any more data, let alone my most personal information, to any more social institutions, let alone huge, commercial, faceless ones (though I guess I’m well acquainted with Mark Zuckerberg’s face by now). I was making a deliberate statement -- one that’s still being made, incidentally, by many non-Facebookers whom I respect -- that no entity should have that kind of comprehensive access to my personal, social, and political identity. I was determined to resist this kind of commodification wherever possible. But in the end, Facebook won. I could no more avoid it and remain socially connected in my field (and to my gaggle of relentlessly Facebooking cousins) than I could avoid my face-to-face connections at work or at home. Or, I suppose, I didn’t want to anymore.
Anyway, as it turns out, I was already all over Facebook (and Twitter). I was tagged in family photos, listed in groups, mentioned in posts and tweets, referenced regarding my work. Google was already documenting much of what I did (and I wouldn’t be very searchable, or have much of a career, if it didn’t). So I joined Facebook, then Twitter, and then developed a professional website, to gain more control over how I am portrayed online – to do my own “impression management,” for you students of Erving Goffman. I had originally hoped to control my data profile by limiting my exposure on social media, but its ubiquity simply wore that idea down. In its place grew the realization that I needed to do more to shape that profile myself.
My cousins wore me down, too. I have dozens of extended family members across the country, and I knew that I had been foregoing opportunities for social interaction with them by not being on Facebook, but I didn’t understand how important those interactions would be to them (and, eventually, to me). I had gotten used to being out of contact with them. At last year’s (in-person) family reunion, though, I was sent the message loud and clear: they were hanging out together online, and they wanted me there, and I was even being kind of rude by refusing to do so. I got it. So I joined Facebook to better connect with them as well. Yes, I compromised my privacy and politics in doing so, but those are probably not the stupidest things I’ve ever done or will do for love.
I’m paying a price, though, make no mistake about it, and you are too. It’s easy to spend too many precious hours online and deter energy from more productive activities. (Of course, time spent online counts as research for me, so I’m okay there.) It’s tempting to over-share – they’ve set it up that way – and it’s important to remember that anything you put online can be tracked and reproduced anywhere, at any time in the future, so it’s not the place for secrets or intimacies. We’re documenting so much about our lives that we’re changing the way we live in response. And it can feel overwhelming to keep up with the massive amounts of information that Facebook and Twitter feed us. This can result in anxiety, a sense of constant clutter in our lives (and brains), and even despair. (Research suggests that if you are interested in meaningful interaction with each friend or follower, keep your lists to about 150 or fewer, as the level and quality of interaction tends to degrade at about that point.)There are more dangers and risks in online and social media participation than this article can convey (they’re detailed in my books, however -- available at most traditional and online booksellers!). Still, I’m glad I joined the “party.” The allure and charm and significance of online social interaction and sharing are undeniable, which is the biggest theme in my work. We may need to make difficult compromises along the way, and cede more control of personal data than makes us comfortable. But we may be better able to understand one another, guide our careers, and shape our online identities. And we can get closer to our cousins.