FAIRBANKS — Last year I traveled to the East Coast for a journalism conference. At dinner with a friend who’d moved east, I used Facebook to check in to the restaurant. If you’re not familiar with the “check in” feature, it’s the equivalent of sending a message to everyone you know that says “look how cool my life is! I’m at a hip fish house enjoying a cocktail with a plastic swordfish in it!”
The next day I got a response to my activity from my sophomore-year college roommate. “Are you in Boston???” she wrote. Though I hadn’t spoken to her in 20 years, we lunched a few days later. It was great.
I love Facebook. I adore the pithy comments acquaintances make on one another’s status updates. I delight in connecting with old friends, even old boyfriends. I cherish stumbling across an update from satirical news source The Onion that reads: “The Ravens battle the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, which will be won or lost in the trenches that the Gillette Stadium grounds crew added to the field.” I get a surprising amount of local and national news from social media. Facebook connects me in meaningful and not-so-meaningful ways to the people and places I care about.
A couple of years ago, I forgot my laptop power cord in a Washington, D.C., hotel room. I posted about it on Facebook. Four hours later, an acquaintance dropped her spare off at my house. A few months later, Facebook informed me that the same acquaintance broke her foot. I took my crutches to her campus office. I’ve given away books and a blender, received restaurant tips and story leads. It’s possible these exchanges might have occurred without social media’s help, but I doubt it.
Sixty-nine percent of online American adults use social networks, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That means almost 51,000 people in the Fairbanks North Star Borough use Facebook or something like it. Even at the local level, that’s an astounding breadth of connection and a lot of status updates and dog-in-a-funny-outfit photos.
I wonder how much is enough.
I also have a LinkedIn account and a Twitter account and accounts with about 33 other sites that somehow claim to be “social.” Share your photographs, your recipes, your knitting projects, your music, your wardrobe, your medications, your nail clippings! There’s even a service, Klout, that measures your influence across the social media landscape. President Obama boasts a Klout score of 100. Mine’s a measly 48. I think it’s because I can’t keep up. I’m not sure I want to.
At their best, social media sites such as Facebook foster the sort of reunion I enjoyed last year. Sometimes, though, they let your high school acquaintances know when you’re in town visiting your parents. Suddenly, despite not exchanging so much as a holiday card for decades, they want to catch up over coffee during the three precious days you’re around. There’s such a thing as being too connected.
Turns out social media has a tipping point, at least according to Dilney Goncalves, a marketing professor at IE Business School in Madrid. Goncalves authored a study, published last year, about how people use Facebook to judge their success. Our “limited view” of others’ lives, Goncalves said, tends to be overwhelmingly positive, a sort of exaggerated life resume. After all, who posts a status update about her son’s “D” in math? But all those upbeat updates can make us feel less satisfied with our own lives. The study found the magic number to be 354. If you have more than 354 Facebook friends, you’re apt to be less happy.
I’m happy on Facebook, less happy when I try to stay on top of my accounts with Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, WordPress, Flickr and every other weirdly spaced and spelled website. I grow anxious. My browser tabs look like a Fairbanks wedding potluck — so many choices. Where do I start? What do I indulge in? How much do I have? What if I miss something?
The answer isn’t to avoid connection or even to unplug. Instead, I’m trying a social media diet. No Facebook on Saturdays. Also, I close the site’s window on my laptop when I’m not actively using it; that way I don’t check it as often. Facebook, not to mention Twitter and the rest, aren’t going away anytime soon. So for now, I don’t want to miss out on a movie with my husband or a pedicure with a girlfriend because I’m worried about my Klout score.
Lynne Lott teaches journalism at UAF. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.