Facebook vs Friends: Losing Ourselves in the Info Age

17 02 2010

Excerpt from “The End of Solitude”, a paper by William Deresiewicz,  associate professor of English at Yale University.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C

With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

I remember realizing a few years ago that most of the members of what I thought of as my “circle” didn’t actually know one another. One I’d met in graduate school, another at a job, one in Boston, another in Brooklyn, one lived in Minneapolis now, another in Israel, so that I was ultimately able to enumerate some 14 people, none of whom had ever met any of the others. To imagine that they added up to a circle, an embracing and encircling structure, was a belief, I realized, that violated the laws of feeling as well as geometry. They were a set of points, and I was wandering somewhere among them. Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re all having a conversation,” a woman I know once said about her Facebook page, full of posts and comments from friends and friends of friends. “Except they’re not.”

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have “friends,” just as we belong to “communities.” Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a “sense” of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

What purpose do all those wall posts and status updates serve? On the first beautiful weekend of spring this year, a friend posted this update from Central Park: “[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City.” The first question that comes to mind is, if you’re enjoying a beautiful day in the park, why don’t you give your iPhone a rest? But the more important one is, why did you need to tell us that? We have always shared our little private observations and moments of feeling—it’s part of what friendship’s about, part of the way we remain present in one another’s lives—but things are different now. Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy. “Reach out and touch someone” meant someone in particular, someone you were actually thinking about. It meant having a conversation. Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

It’s amazing how fast things have changed. Not only don’t we have Wordsworth and Coleridge anymore, we don’t even have Jerry and George. Today, Ross and Chandler would be writing on each other’s walls. Carrie and the girls would be posting status updates, and if they did manage to find the time for lunch, they’d be too busy checking their BlackBerrys to have a real conversation. Sex and Friends went off the air just five years ago, and already we live in a different world. Friendship (like activism) has been smoothly integrated into our new electronic lifestyles. We’re too busy to spare our friends more time than it takes to send a text. We’re too busy, sending texts. And what happens when we do find the time to get together? I asked a woman I know whether her teenage daughters and their friends still have the kind of intense friendships that kids once did. Yes, she said, but they go about them differently. They still stay up talking in their rooms, but they’re also online with three other friends, and texting with another three. Video chatting is more intimate, in theory, than speaking on the phone, but not if you’re doing it with four people at once. And teenagers are just an early version of the rest of us. A study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985. The figures date from 2004, and there’s little doubt that Facebook and texting and all the rest of it have already exacerbated the situation. The more people we know, the lonelier we get.

The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur. The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. “hola cutie-pie! i’m in town on wednesday. lunch?” “Julie, I’m so glad we’re back in touch. xoxox.” “Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now.” Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope? I can understand “[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City,” but I am incapable of comprehending this kind of exhibitionism. Perhaps I need to surrender the idea that the value of friendship lies precisely in the space of privacy it creates: not the secrets that two people exchange so much as the unique and inviolate world they build up between them, the spider web of shared discovery they spin out, slowly and carefully, together. There’s something faintly obscene about performing that intimacy in front of everyone you know, as if its real purpose were to show what a deep person you are. Are we really so hungry for validation? So desperate to prove we have friends?

But surely Facebook has its benefits. Long-lost friends can reconnect, far-flung ones can stay in touch. I wonder, though. Having recently moved across the country, I thought that Facebook would help me feel connected to the friends I’d left behind. But now I find the opposite is true. Reading about the mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera, leaves me feeling both empty and unpleasantly full, as if I had just binged on junk food, and precisely because it reminds me of the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face. And the whole theatrical quality of the business, the sense that my friends are doing their best to impersonate themselves, only makes it worse. The person I read about, I cannot help feeling, is not quite the person I know.

As for getting back in touch with old friends—yes, when they’re people you really love, it’s a miracle. But most of the time, they’re not. They’re someone you knew for a summer in camp, or a midlevel friend from high school. They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 16-year-old self knows them. Your 28-year-old self should not know them.

Facebook holds out a utopian possibility: What once was lost will now be found. But the heaven of the past is a promised land destroyed in the reaching. Facebook, here, becomes the anti-madeleine, an eraser of memory. Carlton Fisk has remarked that he’s watched the videotape of his famous World Series home run only a few times, lest it overwrite his own recollection of the event. Proust knew that memory is a skittish creature that peeks from its hole only when it isn’t being sought. Mementos, snapshots, reunions, and now this—all of them modes of amnesia, foes of true remembering. The past should stay in the heart, where it belongs.

Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or “25 Random Things About Me” can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we’re all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves (“I’m a Skin Bracer man!”) in just those terms. We wear T-shirts that proclaim our brand loyalty, pique ourselves on owning a Mac, and now put up lists of our favorite songs. “15 movies in 15 minutes. Rule: Don’t take too long to think about it.”

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one’s emotional generosity, that one’s moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they’ve done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less. Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches them all, too.

They call them social-networking sites for a reason. Networking once meant something specific: climbing the jungle gym of professional contacts in order to advance your career. The truth is that Hume and Smith were not completely right. Commercial society did not eliminate the self-interested aspects of making friends and influencing people, it just changed the way we went about it. Now, in the age of the entrepreneurial self, even our closest relationships are being pressed onto this template. A recent book on the sociology of modern science describes a networking event at a West Coast university: “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” No solitude, no friendship, no space for refusal—the exact contemporary paradigm. At the same time, the author assures us, “face time” is valued in this “community” as a “high-bandwidth interaction,” offering “unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback and learning.” Actual human contact, rendered “unusual” and weighed by the values of a systems engineer. We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines. The face of friendship in the new century.

Excerpt from “The End of Solitude”, a paper by Socioligist William Deresiewicz.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Source http://chronicle.com/section/Opinion-Ideas/40/

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The Psychology of Passive Barriers: Why Your Friends Don’t Save Money, Eat Healthier, or Clean Their Garages

21 01 2010

Ever procrastinated? Ever been frustrated at your apparent inability to do some basic task that would leave you much better off if done? It’s a strange aspect of human psychology that the simplest barriers or inconveniences can deter us from doing things that we know we should, and that we know we would benefit from immensely at the cost of only10 minutes of our time, or a miniscule amount of effort.

On the top rated personal finance and entrepreneurship blog iwillteachyoutoberich.com, Stanford-educated NY Times best-selling author Ramit Sethi Today gives some powerful insight into WHY we behave like this, as well as some tools to help us DOMINATE these issues.

Note: in the post, Ramit refers to “401(k) plans” – this is the US equivalent of superannuation / KiwiSaver plans in Australia and NZ, where you have the option of contributing extra to your retirement savings plan.

Read on and STRETCH your mind.

Quinton

**

A surprising thing happens to people in their forties. After working hard, buying a house, and starting a family, they suddenly realize that they’d better start being responsible with their money. They begin reading financial books and trying to learn how to set up a nest egg for themselves and their families. It’s a natural part of growing older.

If you ask these people in their forties what their biggest life worry, the answer often is, quite simply, “money.” They want to learn to manage their money better, and they’ll tell you how important financial stability is to them.

Yet the evidence shows something very different. In the table below, researchers followed employees at companies that offered financial-education seminars. Despite the obvious need to learn about their finances, only 17% of company employees attended. This is a common phenomenon: As Laura Levine of the Jumpstart Coalition told me, and I paraphrase, “Bob doesn’t want to attend his 401(k) seminar because he’s afraid he’ll see his neighbor there…and that would be equivalent to admitting he didn’t know about money for all those years.” They also don’t like to attend personal-finance events because they don’t like to feel bad about themselves.

But of those who did attend the employer event, something even more surprising happens:

– Of the people who did not have a 401(k), 100% planned to enroll in their company’s 401(k) offering after the seminar. Yet only 14% actually did.

– Of those who already had a 401(k), 28% planned to increase their participation rate. 47% planned to change their fund selection (most likely because they learned they had picked the default money-market plan, which was earning them virtually nothing). But less than half of people actually made the change.

This is the kind of data that drives economists and engineers crazy, because it clearly shows that people are not rational. Yes, we should max out our 401(k) employer match, but billions of dollars are left on the table each year because we don’t. Yes, we should start eating healthy and exercising more, but we don’t. Why not? Why wouldn’t we do something that’s objectively good for us?

Barriers are one of the implicit reasons you can’t achieve your goals. They can be psychological or profoundly physical, like something as simple as not having a pen when you need to fill out a form. But the underlying factor is that they are breathtakingly simple — and if I pointed them out to you about someone else, you would be sickened by how seemingly obvious they are to overcome.

It’s easy to dismiss these barriers are trivial, and say, “Oh, that’s so dumb!” when you realize that not having an envelope nearby could cost someone over $3,000. But it’s true. And by the end of this article, you’ll be able to identify at least three barriers in your own life — whether you want to or not.

Why people don’t participate in their 401(k)s
If you’re like me, whenever you hear that one of your co-workers doesn’t participate in their 401(k) — especially if there’s an employer match — you scratch your head in confusion. In my case, I feel a rage boiling up that reminds me of the ruins of Pompeii. Even though this is free money, many people still don’t participate. Journalists will cite intangibles like laziness and personal responsibility, suggesting that people are getting less responsible with their money over time. Hardly. It turns out that getting people to enroll in their 401(k) is just plain hard. Yet using simple psychological techniques, however, we can dramatically increase the number of people who participate in their company’s retirement plan. One technique, “automatic enrollment,” automatically establishes a retirement plan and contribution. You can opt out at any time, but you’re enrolled by default. Here’s how it affects 401(k) enrollment. ”AE” = automatic enrollment.

From 40% participation to nearly 100% in one example. Astonishing.

Today, I want to talk about one of the ways to drive behavioral change when it comes to your money. I call them barriers. While I do this, I’m going to ask you for a favor. You’ll see examples of people who lost thousands of dollars because they wouldn’t spend one hour reading a form. It’s easy to call these people “lazy” — and there’s certainly an element of that — but disdainfully calling someone lazy doesn’t explain the whole story. Getting people to change their behavior is extraordinarily hard — even if it will save them thousands of dollars or save their lives. If it were easy, you would have a perfect financial situation: You’d have no debt, your asset allocation would be ideal and rebalanced annually, and you’d have a long-term outlook without worrying about the current economic crisis. You’d be your college weight, with washboard abs and tight legs. You’d have a clean garage. But you don’t. None of us are perfect. That’s why understanding barriers is so important to changing your own behavior.

“Just spend less than you make — duh”
There is something especially annoying about the comments on personal-finance blogs. On nearly every major blog post I’ve made in the last year, someone has left a comment that goes like this: “Ugh, not another money tip. All you need to know is, spend less than you make.” Actually, that’s not true. If that were the case, as I pointed out above, nobody would be in debt, overweight, or have relationship problems of any kind. Simply knowing a high-level fact doesn’t make it useful. I studied persuasion and social influence in college and grad school, for example, but I still get persuaded all the time. These commenters make the common mistake of assuming that people are rational actors, meaning they behave as a computer model would predict. We know this is simply untrue: Books like Freakonomics and Judgment in Managerial Decision Making are great places to get an overview of our cognitive biases and psychological motivations. For example, we say we want to be in shape, but we don’t really want to go to the gym. We believe we’re not affected by advertising, but we’re driving a Mercedes or using Tupperware or wearing Calvin Klein jeans.

There are dramatic differences in what we say versus what we do. Often, the reason is so simple that we can’t believe it would affect us. I call these barriers, and I’ve written about them before: Last weekend, I went home to visit my family. While I was there, I asked my mom if she would make me some food, so like any Indian mom would, she cooked me 2 weeks’ worth. I came back home skipping like a little girl. Now here’s where it gets interesting. When I got back to my place, I took the food out of the brown grocery bag and put the clear plastic bags on the counter. I was about to put the bags in the fridge but I realized something astonishing:

…if I got hungry, I’d probably go to the fridge, see the plastic bags, and realize that I’d have to (1) open them up and then I’d have to (2) open the Tupperware to (3) finally get to the food. And the truth was, I just wouldn’t do it. The clear plastic bags were enough of a barrier to ignore the fresh-cooked Indian food for some crackers!! Obviously, once I realized this, I tore the bags apart like a voracious wolf and have provided myself delicious sustenance for the past week.

I think the source of 95%+ of barriers to success is…ourselves. It’s not our lack of resources (money, education, etc). It’s not our competition. It’s usually just what’s in our own heads. Barriers are more than just excuses — they’re the things that make us not get anything done. And not only do we allow them to exist around us, we encourage them. There are active barriers and passive barriers, but the result is still the same: We don’t achieve what we want to.

Active barriers are physical things like the plastic wrap on my food, or someone telling me that it’ll never work, etc. These are hard to identify, but easy to fix. I usually just make them go away.

Passive barriers are things that don’t exist, so they make your job harder. A trivial example is not having a stapler at your desk; imagine how many times a day that gets frustrating. For me, these are harder to identify and also harder to fix. I might rearrange my room to be more productive, or get myself a better pen to write with.

Today, I want to focus on passive barriers: what they are and how to overcome them.

How to destroy the passive barriers around you

Psychologists have been studying college students for decades to understand how to reduce unprotected sex. Among the most interesting findings, they pointed out that it would be rational for women to carry condoms with them, since the sexual experiences they had were often unplanned and these women can control the use of contraceptives. Except for one thing: When they asked college women why they didn’t carry condoms with them, one young woman typified the responses: “I couldn’t do that…I’d seem slutty.” As a result, she and others often ended up having unprotected sex because of the lack of a condom. Yes, technically they should carry condoms, just as both partners should stop, calmly go to the corner liquor store, and get protection. But many times, they don’t. In this case, the condom was the passive barrier: Because they didn’t have it nearby and conveniently available, they violated their own rule to have safe sex. Passive barriers exist everywhere. Here are some examples:

Barriers in e-mail
I get emails like this all the time:

– “Hey Ramit, what do you think of that article I sent last week? Any suggested changes?”

– My reaction? “Ugh, what is he talking about? Oh yeah, that article on savings accounts…I have to dig that up and reply to him. Where is that? I’ll search for it later. Marks email as unread

– Note: You can yell at me for not just taking the 30 seconds to find his email right then, but that’s exactly the point: By not including the article in this followup email, he triggered a passive barrier of me needing to think about what he was talking about, search for it, and then decide what to reply to. The lack of the attached article is the passive barrier, and our most common response to barriers is to do nothing.

Barriers on your desk
A friend of mine lost over $3,000 because he didn’t cash a check from his workplace, which went bankrupt a few months later. When I asked him why he didn’t cash the check immediately, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t have an envelope handy.” What other things do you delay because it’s not convenient?

Barriers to exercise
I think back to when I’ve failed to hit my workout goals, and it’s often the simplest of reasons. One of the most obvious barriers was my workout clothes. I had one pair of running pants, and after each workout, I would throw it in my laundry basket. When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I would think is: “Oh god, I have to get up, claw through my dirty clothes, and wear those sweaty pants again.” Once I identified this, I bought a second pair of workout clothes and left them by my door each day. When I woke up, I knew I could walk out of my room, find the fully prepared workout bag and clothes, and get going.

Barriers to healthy eating
When I was in college, I loved those Ramen Cup of Noodles. Unfortunately, I stored them in my closet, so each time I wanted one, I would have to walk to another room, reach up to the top of the closet, open the package, and prepare it. Ridiculous! Instead, I created this:

– Obviously, that’s a ridiculous example because I was a college student, but imagine how you can apply this to eat healthier (which we all routinely lie about): If you find yourself snacking on Cheetos all day at work, try this: Don’t take any spare change in your pockets for the vending machine. Even if you leave quarters in your car, that walk to the parking lot is barrier enough not to do it. Give yourself an alternative:

How do you think that’ll affect your eating behavior?

Applying passive barrier theory to your life
As we’ve seen, the lack of having something nearby can have profound influences on your behavior. Imagine seeing a complicated mortgage form with interest rates and calculations on over 100 pages. Sure, you should calculate all of it, but if you don’t have a calculator handy, the chances of your actually doing it go down dramatically.

Now, we’re going to dig into areas where passive barriers are preventing you from making behavioral change — sometimes without you even knowing it.

Fundamentally, there are two ways to address a passive barrier.

  • You’re missing something, so you add it to achieve your goals. For example, cutting up your fruit as soon as you bring it home from the grocery store, packing your lunches all at once, or re-adding the attachment to a followup email so the recipient doesn’t have to look for it again.
  • Causing an intentional passive barrier by intentionally removing something. You put your credit card in a block of ice in the freezer to prevent overspending. (That’s not addressing the cause, but it’s immediately stopping the symptom.) Or you put your unhealthiest food on the other side of the house, so you have to walk to them. Or you install software like Freedom to force yourself not to browse 50 websites in a day.

Personally, here are a few passive barriers I’ve identified for myself: I keep my checkbook by my desk, because for the few checks I receive in the mail, I tend to never mail them in. I keep a gym bag of clothes ready to work out. And I cut up my fruit when I bring it home from the store, because I know I’ll get lazy later. Let’s see how this can work for you.

  1. Get a piece of paper and a pen, or open up Notepad on your computer.
  2. Identify 10 things you would do if you were perfect. Don’t censor —just write what comes to mind. And focus on actions, not outcomes. Examples: “I’d work out 4 times per week, clean my garage by this Sunday, play with my son for 30 minutes each day, and check my spending once per week.”
  3. Now, play the “Five Whys” game: Why aren’t you doing it?

Let’s play out the last step with the example of exercising regularly:

  • I say I want to exercise 3 times per week, but I only go twice per month. Why?
  • Because I’m tired when I get home from work Why?
  • Because I get home from work at 6pm Why?
  • Because I leave late for work, so I have to put in 8 hours. Why?
  • Because I don’t wake up in time for my alarm clock. Why?
  • Hmm…Because when I get in bed, I watch TV on Hulu for a couple hours.

Solution: Put the computer in the kitchen before you go to sleep —> sleep earlier —> come home from work at an earlier time —> feel more rested —> work out regularly.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but you see what I mean. Pick ten areas of your life that you want to improve. Force yourself to understand why you haven’t done so already. Don’t let yourself cop out: “I just don’t want to” isn’t the real reason. And once you find out the real reasons you haven’t been able to check your spending, or cook dinner, or call your mom, you might be embarrassed at how simple it really was. Don’t let that stop you. Passive barriers are valued in their usefulness, not in how difficult they are to identify.

Summing it up: Passive barriers in your life

Passive barriers are subtle factors that prevent you from changing your behavior. Unlike “active” barriers, passive barriers describe the lack of something, making them more challenging to identify. But once you do, you can immediately take action to change your behavior.

You can apply barriers to prevent yourself from spending money, cook and eat healthier, exercise more, stay in touch with your friends and family, and virtually any other behavior. You can do this with small changes or big ones. The important factor is to take action today.

A caveat: Sometimes people take this advice to mean, “The reason I haven’t been sticking to my workout regimen is that I don’t have the best running shoes. I should really go buy those $150 shoes I’ve been eyeing…that will help me change my behavior.” Resolving passive barriers is not a silver bullet: Although they help, you’ll be ultimately responsible for changing your own behavior. Instead of buying better shoes immediately, I’d recommend setting a concrete goal — “Once I run consistently for 20 days in a row, I’ll buy those shoes for myself” — before spending on barriers. Most changes can be done with a minimum of expense.

Thanks for reading.

This is a guest post from Ramit Sethi, the founder of iwillteachyoutoberich.com, a blog on personal finance and entrepreneurship. Check out his new book here: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.