I used to be unaware of how popular I was. Thanks to Facebook, I now know exactly how social I am, down to an exact number! With the advent of Facebook and other social networking websites, we have all become seamlessly connected. I can talk to my friends anytime from anywhere, see what people have been up to and make plans for the future. But the coolest part of all is that, with Facebook, popularity is now a numbers game.
Scoring people is easy: all you have to do is look at someone’s profile. From their page, you can quickly pull up their friend count (arguably the most crucial number for determining how sociable someone is), the number of photos they appear in and other performance stats like number of gifts, bumper stickers, etc. Other variables come into play but are harder to divine, like how many groups someone is in or how many events they are attending. This ability to quantify how social someone is must come as a breath of fresh air to math geeks and statistics junkies, who can now easily plug in numbers to get a quantitative reading on someone’s popularity. Maybe we can even look forward to the development of a formula like the NFL’s passer rating to calculate people’s popularity level! (Stats honors thesis?)
As cool as it is to have our social lives narrowed down to a science by Facebook, is it possible that it’s changing how we interact with each other for the worse? The introduction of numbers into our personal worlds seems to be creating an arms race of friend requests and pokes. This isn’t anything new: it’s the same phenomenon as people packing their cell phones with as many contacts as possible. It’s the same as Valentine’s Day in high school, when people would proudly display how many candy grams and balloons they had received while walking down the hall (Glenn Coco always won). It’s less about making substantive connections and more about displaying the number of connections. It doesn’t matter as much that you appear in good photos as it does that you appear in many. Facebook has changed the playing field, to an extent, so that it’s all about the numbers.
I’ll admit that I play the game as much as anyone else. I take my time accepting friend requests and event invitations. I like it when I see my Wall full of other people’s posts (I’m shallow). I let my eyes wander to someone else’s friend and photo counts when I’m looking at their profiles, and give myself a small (and insecure, obviously) mental high-five if I have more than them. Maybe it’s unhealthy that we’re allowing our online personas to be caught up in this arms race. Maybe it’s cheapening what we consider to be our social lives. I get friend requests from time to time from people I’ve never talked to or met. People living on the other side of the US invite me to their events to boost the RSVP count. I mean, come on, who actually has over 1,000 friends that they want to actively keep in touch with?
The unsettling part isn’t just that we’re allowing our online personas to be affected by the numbers and revisionist personal history we try to micromanage. Our statistics on Facebook translate into how we interact in the real world. Never have so many photos been taken at parties to boost picture counts and create permanent records of every moment. Never before have people insisted that someone they meet friend request them (or accept their request) in order to solidify their friendship.
Maybe if Facebook eliminated numbers, we would see a change in how people act socially outside of the Internet. Maybe party time wouldn’t be lost to ensuring that everyone gets into a photo to prove they were there and boost their count. Maybe friend requests would drop dramatically if we couldn’t prominently display to each other how many friends we have. Facebook already eliminated the number showing how many wall posts we have. It could be time to follow suit by eliminating numbers in general from the site, so that we stop trying to quantify our social lives and start trying to qualitatively improve them. The number of ‘real’ connections we make has nowhere to go but up when we finally stop friending people we don’t even know because there’s no score to show for it. Maybe without numbers, we can get back to living our lives.
Wanna friend me? E-mail me at email@example.com.