I AM A WEB FOX and might have too many Facebook 'friends' who aren't actually friends.
This was the conclusion I made about myself at the Science Museum Monday night as part of Digifest, a technology event that made me undertake hands-on practical experiments to find out what being on the web is doing to my brain.
It must be doing something. I'm part of the first generation that has virtually grown up on the web. My parents, although they're not that old, don't really have a clue about technology unless you're talking about a phone or a TV.
So, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace - you name it, I'm on it. In fact I'd call myself a hardcore user. But am I becoming more sociable through the self-confessed overuse of something like Facebook, or is this actually turning me into a more lonely person who can only really communicate online? I have nearly 500 online friends, but how many of them am I actually close to?
To answer this question I underwent an experiment conducted by Dr Sam Roberts, an expert from the University of Oxford, who was researching the impact that Facebook and other social networks are having on the way I interact with people.
First off was a questionnaire that asked me who I would actually trust with secrets and problems in my life. It didn't surprise me. Even though I have 500 friends, there are really only a few people who I can actually call 'close friends' who I would be able to feel comfortable with that information, and the others were family, (though admittedly there are things that I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with them).
But I like Facebook and try to be in contact with a lot of people, and obviously due to time limitations I can't really keep in touch with all of them. The next stage of the experiment showed me the reason why my brain would be unable to connect with so many people and why Facebook was such a good tool for this.
Using the information from my friend's list and a Facebook app called Touchgraph, it showed me how disparate the groups of my friends actually are. I counted no less than eight different social groups. There are friends from my first uni, from my second uni, my secondary school, work, my skating hobby, online friends, and others that I've met through the course of my life.
But like some Facebook users, I have a tendency to friend collect. As a journalist, I feel it's part of my job to keep in touch. But as Dr Roberts said, there are perfectly valid reasons for Facebook being used as a tool, because the brain simply can't handle keeping in touch with all the people you might want to know in the future. Facebook is really more about keeping acquaintances rather than friends.
Roberts mentioned research by Facebook that showed users contacted the same number of people in a month regardless of the number of friends that they had.
"Basically you have your core group of friends who you would contact whether you're on Facebook or not," he said. "The other friends - maybe you would have lost contact with them if it wasn't for Facebook."
He continued, "Maybe you met them at a conference or travelling and added them as a Facebook friend. It keeps them just in your social network. Otherwise you might have lost their email or their mobile number. With Facebook you have casual friends in a way you probably wouldn't have done otherwise."
That Facebook made the move to real-time streaming of information like Twitter on its news feed was also crucial, as it means that you can passively know what all your friends are doing, rather than having to look for the information.
But I realise this constant friend gathering isn't actually the same behaviour that other Internet users exhibit. In a different experiment, Dr Ian Rowlands from University College London examined what kind of web user I am thanks to a web behaviour quiz on the BBC website that asked me questions about my Internet use, such as whether I multi-task, how long I spend watching videos, social networking and sending emails, as well as testing my memory skills.
The result was that I am a 'Web Fox', which means that I am great at finding information quickly, just like a real-world fox is always ready to pounce on an opportunity. It also said that I am a highly social animal who maintains relationships with tools such as social networks. I am also adaptable, like a real-world fox who is able to change his behaviour to suit the environment.
But as I found out, people choose to browse and use the web differently. For example a large majority of people tested carry the characteristics of a 'Web Elk', who take their time finding the right morsels of information like a real-world elk, which carefully browses for shoots and leaves to eat. They are also social, but make sure to stay in herds to protect themselves from predators, and usually focus on one thing at a time rather than multitask.
Rowlands said, "The week before, I just kept meeting Elks. People who worked in the media, people who worked in libraries, as teachers, they were really represented well by Elks. It's a great thing to be."
There apparently is a lack of 'Web Octopuses', who are independent and rarely interact with each other, finding information on their own without the use of social networks. This is even though they have good ability to adapt and multitask. This shows that the understanding and use of social networks is now so popular that online interaction is the norm rather than the exception.
Facebook has become part of my life, and it was good to examine how and why I am behaving the way I do on the web and how social networks have become such a big part of my life. I may be far too trusting, far too open and connect far too easily online, but that's my Internet personality, and even though I may have too many 'friends' who aren't really friends, there is no reason for me to change that. µ
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