Who is using Facebook these days?

(Author’s note: I embrace the irony that most of my readers will come from the facebook link)

I often use my younger cousins to find out what’s going on with kids these days. A few weeks ago, I asked them to explain what “ratchet” meant. They tried to explain. I still don’t think I get it.

Something I understand but don’t really get is that kids these days don’t use Facebook anymore. Apparently they use Instagram and Snapchat instead. When I was their age, we were all about Facebook because it had just expanded membership to high school students, and it was the cool thing that our recently departed college friends had. Consequently, I think that most of my Facebook friends to this day are high school friends. In any case, apparently Facebook is for their parents now, so kids don’t want to use it. Instead, they prefer newer, hipper services that old people haven’t caught onto, albeit with much more limited functionality.

However, it is disingenuous for me to tease my cousins for not using Facebook when I myself am not a heavy Facebook user anymore. The truth is that I honestly am not that interested in most of the content and don’t feel the need to share much myself.

I detailed most of my behavior in this blog post. To recap, I do like Facebook as a public address book that doesn’t require explicit exchange of contact details. Most regular status updates are uninteresting because I’m not close to most of my Facebook friends anymore. And for links to other content, I trust the masses on reddit to filter content better than suggestions from individuals, even if I do know them personally

In that blog post, I mentioned that I am in a group chat on Google Hangouts with some college friends. With about 20,000 messages in 5 months, it has been very active. I describe it as all of us sitting in a room together talking, except that we can all talk at the same time without interrupting each other. As such, there are usually several active topics, and they range from deep to ridiculous, significant to mundane, sports to politics. When we meet in real life, we refer to the group chat like regular conversation, which we expect everyone to keep up with despite the volume.

Interestingly, I have been posting content to the group chat that is similar to Facebook statuses: random pictures from events and daily life, links to interesting content I find on the internet, and thoughts off the top of my head. Despite my reluctance to share on Facebook, I’m happy to chat about the minutia I scroll past on Facebook.

I think the difference is the audience and context. Instead of sharing or consuming with hundreds, it’s the 10-ish that I actually talk to and interact with on a regular basis. And instead of an open platform more akin to public broadcast to newsfeeds everywhere, I’m in a more synchronous exchange with others. Although social networks offered new and exciting ways to connect, I’m reverting to a medium more in common with traditional face-to-face.

As for Facebook, there are a few types of commonly bemoaned content that I see. One is the controversial or politicized link or comment that inevitably leads to strongly-worded arguments. Another is the sad, vaguely-worded post about something bad that happened that isn’t elaborated on. And there’s the rallying outrage post about some issue.

These topics are similar in that they are best shared in smaller settings, yet we find some ego-directed satisfaction in sharing them publicly. Politics are always tricky to discuss, but it’s better to sit face-to-face with the intent to understand and not to argue. And yet we know that it’s bait for the most ardent responders who care to write long responses. Misery does need company, but I think most people actually respond better to a heartfelt conversation rather than a short, sympathetic comments and likes. And outrage on social media seems to be the new norm that makes us feel good in garnering likes while often doing little to enact change.

Facebook as a big platform is good for big things. For engagements and pregnancies, it’s a efficient way to share news with a lot of people. And social media has also been an effective forum for organizing political activism. But for most people, daily life isn’t that exciting, and a network that gives everyone a soap box (with status updates) and a feeling of impact (with the “Like” button) isn’t conducive to meaningful communication.

Despite my dire misgivings about Facebook, I still can’t quit it entirely. I often can’t even resist typing it into my address bar when I already know there’s not much for me. There are just too many darn people on it. I guess, in at least one way, I can relate to kids these days.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.