Friday, April 23, 2010

Is Your Facebook Profile Ready to Delete You? Lessons from South Park

South Park's "You Have 0 Friends" episode drives home the ways the social media giant Facebook has slowly but surely taken over our lives. Originally aired on April 8th, Comedy Central ran it again last night, and a second viewing revealed additional insights into the ways our lives have changed as a result of digital and social media—and was a hilarious good time at that. So, what would you do if you had no Facebook friends? Is your Facebook profile larger than life? [Stan in the digital world. © South Park.]

In this episode, Stan joins Facebook in response to pressure from his friends. And soon runs into rather familiar problems:
  • Do you have to friend family members (i.e., parents, grandparents) and then how often do you have to interact with them? What are the expectations? (Stan's dad friends him and makes him friend his grandmother—and then encourages Stan to poke his grandmother.)
  • How much information do you have to share? (Stan's girlfriend becomes upset after noticing his profile lists him as single.)

Stan quickly becomes fed up with the whole thing, and decides to deactivate his account. True to form, he receives numerous prompts asking him to confirm his decision, and when he reaches the final confirmation, he literally gets sucked into Facebook, entering the virtual world where he must find and confront his profile if he ever hopes to be free. Parallel to Stan's story is that of Kip Drordy, a third-grader, who has no Facebook friends until Kyle friends him. Kip is so pleased he takes Kyle's Facebook page to the movies (yes, you read that correctly), and is heartbroken when Kyle finally de-friends him.

South Park portrays Facebook as a political tool used for managing relationships: one's standing within your networks is dependent on how many friends you have as well as who you friend. Kyle ultimately de-friends Kip because he is virtually ignored by someone else for participating in the relationship. The show raises the question, at what point does it all become too much? When Stan finally locates his profile (in a chat party in Cafe World, no less), he is confronted by a giant bot version of himself, bolstered by the numerous Facebook connections he has. It tells him that he can be destroyed because "I have more friends than you'll ever have in the real world—one million friends!" [Insert evil laugh here.] His connections have made him larger (figuratively and literally) in the digital world than he is in the real world. But what does one do with this type of notoriety?

Kip's story raised a lot of interesting questions for me, and caused me to think about the hours I spend cultivating my profile, and the process by which I determine who to friend and what level of access to award them to my information. I am not an auto-friender. Just because we know someone in common does not mean I have any interest in sharing my vacation photos with you or having you comment on my status. Politically, this has likely created some issues as I have refused to friend distant family members who have never spoken to me in real like. Personally, I have no desire to have a million friends, so I have no qualms about hitting the "Ignore" button. But there are definitely a few people use the medium actively to navigate our relationship. For example, do you have a friend who seems to "Like" everything you do—including the not so happy statuses? It's given me pause as I wonder what there really is to like about not feeling well.

But Kip also gives us a view at social isolation in the digital age. Yes, there have always been the kids who shied away from social activities in favor of video games in their basement. But there is an entire new set of psychological considerations to evaluate that comes from being socially rejected digitally. It's unlikely that real world socialization will ever fully disappear, but so much of our new social order and our determination of social worth is vested in our online activities, that individuals who are unable to connect to others digitally may potentially run the risk of serious social impairments.

So spill it—how much time do you spend on Facebook? Is your profile larger than life? How do you manage your network? Is there any reason to manage your network? Let's hear your thoughts ... once you get off of Facebook.

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