Opinion

Is Facebook destroying our capacity for meaningful relationships?

While investors follow Facebook stock prices, it is we the Facebook users who will shape this new global social fabric. We must reinvest in self-reflection and in-person relationship building. We must use Facebook in ways that bring us closer together, not tear us further apart.

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    A magnifying glass highlights a Facebook page displayed in Munich. Facebook's highly publicized IPO has largely flopped. Op-ed contributor Kate Otto says it is Facebook users – not investors or Mark Zuckerberg – who will shape the digital future. She warns: Facebook-enabled behaviors 'translated into nearly disastrous results when I finally logged off and stepped into the 'real' world...'
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"Did you join Facebook yet?" It was a question I fielded several times in 2004, the summer before I began college, as the fledgling social network was expanding beyond a handful of elite colleges.

I felt unsure about joining, at first: Isn't college about making real relationships? Yet as Facebook began influencing my life, and my communities at home and abroad, I came to see its value in a new light.

There was the summer I spent in Tanzania developing a teenage health program with local high school students like Glory, a brilliant but financially poor young woman. Since then, via online fundraising advertised on Facebook, my friends have funded Glory's college education, thereby transforming her life and enabling her to raise herself out of poverty. She continues to keep us regularly updated through her Facebook posts.

When I moved to Bandung, Indonesia, to work with a local drug rehabilitation center, I saw Facebook empowering its entire cadre of peer support counselors, who spent hours on the site, via desktop or hand-held device. Facebook helped them track transient clients – young drug users or sex workers who lived with, or were at risk of contracting, HIV – and their virtual connectivity resulted in lives saved off-line.

When Facebook made its much-discussed initial public offering recently, it had engaged almost 1 billion members in less than a decade. It isn't far-fetched to project that Facebook will soon become a standard means for interpersonal interaction.

Yet the universalization of a Facebook-powered world is also worrisome. For all the good that comes when we take control of our Facebook accounts and use them for proactive outreach and connection, just as much damage occurs when we allow our accounts to control us, pulling us further apart from the people who are very close by.

For me, and most others of my generation, Facebook strengthened my ability to forge countless "weak ties" at the expense of fewer, but stronger, relationships. Posting regular updates coached me to write rapidly for a faceless mass audience and craft my publicly promoted identity as if it were a brand.

Reading the similarly constructed updates of friends fostered seeds of inadequacy, and an oddly isolating desire for constant monitoring that negated the need to ask questions in person. Like other college students, Facebook allowed me to distract myself from the important by remaining fixated on the irrelevant.

This translated into nearly disastrous results when I finally logged off and stepped into the "real" world through my public service assignments in Tanzania, Indonesia, and beyond – and I was not alone. I noticed a characteristic impatience in myself and other volunteers. Though our goals were well intentioned, we moved quickly through multiple projects on unreasonably short timelines.

Disappointment reigned when things rarely went as planned, and I came face to face with my Facebook-enabled obsession with control: controlling what others think of me through the content I choose to post and how others can interact with me through deliberate account and privacy settings.

But in-person interaction demanded something different: the time and vulnerability it takes to build trust and the focus and depth required for service efforts to be meaningful.

My pre-Facebook instinct was right. College, and life, is about cultivating relationships, which become the cornerstone of strong societies. If Facebook becomes our most common interaction space in the future, the deceptive dynamics of digital connectivity make me wonder: Are we destroying our capacity for lasting human relationships?

It is clear to me as both a Millennial and a global citizen that Facebook will continue to expand, engaging billions more people – whether they survive on $2 a day or earn $200 an hour, whether they Instagram from Boston or Bandung.

While investors follow Facebook stock prices, and Mark Zuckerberg and his developers influence our digital tomorrows, it is we the Facebook users who hold the power to shape this new global social fabric. I hope we take this opportunity to reinvest in self-reflection and in each other – through in-person relationship building. We stand at the frontier, and it is up to us to use Facebook in ways that bring us closer together, not tear us further apart.

Kate Otto is currently writing "Everyday Ambassador," a book about the impact of technology on human relationships, in the pursuit of a better world.

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