Sunday 20 August 2017

Life through a status bar

Since most people use Facebook as a distraction, Johanna Gohmann wonders if it's the right place to share more serious news

Johanna Gohmann

Where else would you find a social club with 500 million personalities crammed into it? It's no surprise, then, that Facebook has a problem applying 'rules'.

For some, it's no more than a silly time suck that they turn to when they're bored. A person might log on to watch a YouTube clip of a cat wearing a top hat, or to share a link to a new Lady Gaga video. Their exchanges are breezy and casual, and without a lot of emotional investment.

But others have a much deeper connection, and view the site as their own private community where it's acceptable to share everything from what they're about to have for dinner to some of the most intimate moments of their lives. These users will post photos of the moment they became engaged, or shots of their wedding kiss.

Parents-to-be often post ultrasounds. Some will even share their images without any sort of privacy restrictions, which means that strangers all the way from Oklahoma to Tangier can see photos of someone's wife in a hospital gown, still sweaty from labour.

True, many of us might consider these kinds of postings an overshare. Yet people are generally happy to take part in a friend's joy, and even if we feel strange glimpsing such private moments, we'll still give the shots a celebratory tick of the 'I Like' thumbs up.

It's fairly easy to relate to Facebook in cheerful terms, what with the endless goofy animal clips, or the silly "Which 'Mad Men' Character Are You?" quizzes. What becomes tricky is when people use the site to relay tragic news. It can be incredibly jarring to be casually scrolling the page, one minute watching a YouTube snippet, then glancing further down the screen and learning that a classmate from college has passed away, or that a friend has just lost their mother. The site is often so jammed with trivial titbits that learning truly serious news in this way can feel shockingly out of context.

Maria Morrison (33), from Islandbridge, has been a Facebook user for two years. She runs her own vintage crockery business, Me Auld China, and she adores Facebook as a marketing tool. Despite having 117 friends, she has little personal investment in the site beyond scrolling through her pals' photos and sending out updates on her business. However, her casual usage doesn't protect her from the whims and postings of others.

In 2009, while on her honeymoon, Morrison took a quick glance at her Facebook account and saw a posting that voiced concern for one of her co-workers. The man in question had disappeared, and friends were unsure of his whereabouts. "I got a message saying he was missing, and the story sort of unravelled that way. But other people were posting things saying, 'Oh, you know him, he'll show up somewhere'."

By the time Morrison returned from her honeymoon, she was distraught to learn that her co-worker had, in fact, died. She sees the casual nature of Facebook as posing a big problem when trying to deliver grave or tragic news. "Facebook is so informal. And I think that when a message like that is delivered, people don't really take it seriously."

Nowhere was this sentiment more clearly echoed than in the recent story of Simone Beck. Beck was a 42-year-old Facebook user in Brighton, England. This past Christmas, she posted a suicide note as her status update. Of Beck's 1,082 friends on the site, not a single one took her threat seriously or attempted to get help. By the time the police were notified, it was too late.

Using the site to post suicide notes is not a new occurrence, and Facebook now has a 'help' page listing what to do if someone makes threats of suicide. They suggest immediately calling law enforcement, and offer the numbers of suicide help lines and the Samaritans. You can also submit a report to the site should you come across any suicidal remarks.

The site has also been forced to tackle the delicate etiquette surrounding a user's death. Should a user pass away, his page won't be taken down or removed unless the site is properly notified and presented with proof, such as an obituary. Once the site confirms the person has died, they offer to "memorialize" their profile. This means that the profile will be kept open solely for the purpose of people leaving condolences.

However, if the site isn't alerted of a user's passing, the profile stays active. Once it has been dormant for a while, the site might automatically generate a message to the deceased person's friends suggesting they "reconnect" with them. No doubt this would prove a harsh and painful reminder for the recipient of such a message.

However, Dermot Kearns doesn't have any issue with sharing sad news over Facebook. Kearns is a retired salesman living in Malahide, who describes himself as a "very young 71". Kearns joined Facebook two years ago for the purpose of viewing photos of loved ones and relatives who live afar. With 21 'friends', he visits the site around twice a week. He likes that it keeps him abreast of people's lives, and he says he wouldn't take issue with anyone wishing to share their bad news along with their good.

"You do want to keep up to date. Besides being sad about hearing about a death, I wouldn't really say it was a harsher way to find out. I think it's okay. Computers generally have changed our culture. All the social sites change our outlook on things."

Grace Kelley's (25) outlook has probably been altered more than most, as she's very much a part of the 'Facebook generation'. She was a 19-year-old at Trinity when she and her friends began creating profiles for themselves. This was in the site's earliest stages, when it was still only available to students at certain universities.

Kelley is now an actress, currently appearing on the RTE web series 'Free House'. She's been using the site for five years, largely to promote her plays and appearances. With 638 'friends', she checks the site several times a day and, on average, will spend around 20 minutes on a single visit. Like Morrison, Kelley enjoys the site for its "free advertising" benefits, though, as a longtime user, she also views it as a major means of socialising with her mates. She sees pros and cons to sharing serious or intimate news on the site.

"In a way, it's good because people can find out that someone has died in a very short amount of time, without waiting for word of mouth. But it can also feel very impersonal, and a little unnecessary. I think some people do it mainly to attract attention to themselves, and for sympathy."

But if sharing upsetting news on Facebook is helpful to someone, then shouldn't it be okay? If Facebook is life shrunken to the screen, then it's rightly a mix of the mundane along with our great sadnesses and celebrations, no? On the other hand, is it wrong to drop such a shocker on someone if they only see Facebook as a bit of escapist fun?

There are now books such as 'Saving Face: The Facebook Etiquette Book' and 'NETiquette: Tips for Adults & Teens: Facebook, Myspace, Twitter! Terminology and More' that attempt to help people navigate these questions. It's a nice effort, but when you're dealing with the likes of 500 million people, it's difficult to imagine a universal etiquette being agreed upon. Chances are pretty good that someone out there isn't going to get the memo.

The Facebook homepage sports the tagline: "Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Sounds simple enough. The problem, of course, is that our world is an incredibly complicated and fragile one, and isn't all cats in top hats.

Perhaps the ultimate conundrum of Facebook lies in the fact that our joys and sorrows can't be squeezed into the space of a status bar. No matter what the future of Facebook holds, life will always be far more complex than a tiny blue thumbs-up, signalling our likes and our dislikes.

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