Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, November 08, 2007


There is this guy who joined my department as a post-doc the year I graduated. He's a very interesting and multifaceted person, having pursued a very cool parallel career that he still keeps in touch with. Anyway, I don't work with him, so I only meet him once a year, and he had floated to the periphery of my world.

Until we linked up on Facebook. Now I can know pretty much what he chooses to reveal. (He was in Israel as a keynote speaker this week, is hoarse now, and must clear out his physical inbox.) One such status update a few weeks back struck me as funny and ironic, so I messaged him saying so. Two days later, we met for the first time in a year, at our annual conference.

It was late in the evening and a crowd of people were gathered around the bar in the hotel lobby. A large group of people all with ties to my alma mater had commandeered a couch and some armchairs, and we sat around together, catching up. This guy appeared and plonked down next to me. The first thing he said was -- "So, we should be able to use Facebook to study something." I looked at him. I wasn't so sure what. He said, "There's an awful lot of data that can be collected there." I said, "Yeah, but what will it tell you? Apart from who has how many friends, and who uses how many applications?" He persisted, "There has to be *something*." I agreed there could be something, but I just wasn't sure what. It sounded to me a lot like what one would hear during the internet craze of the late 90s. "The internet will change everything," a lot of people said. "How?" I would hear my academic hero ask. "What will they do that's different? Not faster, or more conveniently, or more efficiently... *different*. How will behavior change?"

I never heard a good answer to that question. People would say - "Oh, but you can buy groceries online." But, until the boom collapsed, they never got the point that that's not *different*. People still buy groceries, and they buy the same stuff as before -- they're just going to a different sort of store, but they're doing the same thing (just as the folks in Indian metropolises today are now going to the department stores in malls instead of the sabziwalas). So that's what the whole "let's research Facebook" idea sounded like to me. I just didn't see what people were doing *different* thanks to Facebook (except perhaps pretending to throw sheep at each other). So that conversation didn't go anywhere.

But then I had the strangest experience today, which, when I reflected on it, brought it all back to me. A blogger I have known and liked for a while now, but only recently well enough to exchange emails and chat with, initiated this conversation. It started off innocuously enough, with said person popping up to ask me what my latest status message meant. I explained. Abruptly, s/he shifted gears. "Do you live in a house?" "Do you have pets?" "You're sounding like one of those people who call you up," I said, "Hi! I'm calling from the State of Massachusetts." "What is the one thing you cook that you refer to as your speciality?" ("I'm trying to fill in a mental picture.") "Have you met a lot of bloggers or did you know a ton beforehand?" The questions just kept coming.

It was really interesting. I was working on the side, but kept answering them as they flew at me -- all sorts of questions from all sorts of angles. "When you were in college were you insufferable? Have you ever dressed in drag? Do you worry about losing your mind? " "Where do you get these questions from?" I asked. "Making them up as we go along." Finally, after an exhilarating ride, I answered "What was your worst hangover" with a story that said person approved of as "very good", and I was off the hook.

Something like this had never happened to me before. But I'd had so much to do during the day that I couldn't reflect on it till dinnertime. Which is when the Facebook conversation came back to me. Think about the process of making friends, I thought. You see someone - they do or say something you like, or you do or say something they like, and the other person reciprocates. You get into a conversation; you reveal certain things about yourself. If these things are not repulsive to the other person, they maintain contact. Similarly for you. You interact repeatedly, usually in various different settings -- you meet for coffee, you go to a bar, you have lunch, you call each other up (heck you even add them on Facebook). All the while, you get to know a little bit more about the person -- from the things they say, the way they talk, the jokes they crack, the stuff they order, the way they look suspiciously at the wait-staff. You share confidences -- each personal datum revealed elicits one in return, bonds are built. That's how friendships grow.

And how different this internet business can be. You can have a blog for nearly two years. You can read someone else's blog for large parts of that period. You can interact almost daily on this forum, on your blog, their blog, other people's blogs. Yet what you reveal is very constrained, what they reveal is as controlled, and the medium of communication is unitary, and restrictive. So when, after all these presses of the reload button you find that you feel as if the other person is your friend, you also find - that in some sense of the word - you "know" this person not at all.

And yet, you feel as if you are friends.

Now, is *that* different?


Blogger Space Bar said...

you find that you feel as if the other person is your friend, you also find - that in some sense of the word - you "know" this person not at all.

Would this be the obverse of *knowing* a person well enough to know what they look like when they wake up, which chores they like/dislike, what their families are like, and yet find, when you look at them that if you could, you'd have nothing to do with them?

I guess what I'm trying to say it, that though we become friends in new ways, the slow, incremental joys of discovery remain the same whether they happen on Facebook or face to face.


11/08/2007 12:03 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

interesting comment. i thought with the first para you were leading into divorce related territory and i wasn't sure what to make of that. but the second para breaks off quite sharply from that. i definitely agree with you about the slow, incremental joys, whether they happen online or irl. however what happened yesterday was definitely not slow and incremental, and neither was it reciprocal. still, it was fun. and that's what struck me as being - possibly - *different*.

11/08/2007 10:05 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Not sure why you feel that the internet does not make you do new things. Doing the same thing very differently is the same as doing a new thing.
Web based apps(Google, Blogger, Facebook etc.) increase your efficiency when indulging in existing behavior patterns, but in such a radically new manner that they have spawned novel activities.
Googling, blogging and "facebooking" are not just great ways to search for information, share ideas and keep in touch with friends . Instead they are stand alone verbs that each come packaged with their own set of sub-activities, traditions, idiosyncrasies and expectations.

11/09/2007 1:23 AM  
Anonymous One Trick Pony said...

I liked this post.

I am with Space Bar. In terms of e-friends, or colleagues or anyone you have previously known in a limited setting - the joys of transitioning them to proper friends is the same - whatever the manner - a face to face chat, or an exhaustive interrogation on gchat.

(psst spacebar, wanna urf?)

11/09/2007 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Some things I find interesting about Facebook (not that I'm saying they are "different" from the offline world but interesting).

1. You can see your friends' Facebook friends all at once. That integration of all these random bits of information (many quite different and contradictory) simultaneously may be quite different than sequential integration - i.e. in the offline world, you knwo a person, integrate a bit of information about him/her and then get exposed to more information.

2. Again, in the offline world, one can maintain separate identities with ease. e.g. a professional identity and a personal identity and each of those would be salient at some point. In Facebook on the other hand, its hard to have a one at a time working self-concept because all your friends (personal/professional) are there at the same time (again the simultaneous vs sequential). So now you become this professional-personal mix. Which makes for a cool mix if those identities are very different. Also, does that integration make that mixed identity more or less authentic?

3. The default on facebook is that all your information is known to the world and you then decide what to turn "off". The choice to turn off information is significant. And what about those people who write for example on religious or political views "Kept private". Why don't they just turn off that information, I always wonder. When I see people with limited information, I compare what information they choose not to reveal and suddenly the non-revealed information takes on emormous significance. Whreas in the offlince world, you turn information "on" selectively i.e. I start with nothing and then reveal things about myself that I want to.

4. I love those wall conversations. Its like people having a conversation you are eavesdropping on. But everyone knows they are public so is it really eavesdropping?


11/09/2007 1:59 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

TR:It is rather misleading, isn't it? I guess what I was saying with that first para was that 'knowing' or 'not knowing' matters very little when it comes to decisions you make about who you like.

OTP: with great joy, if i knew what (or how!) to write it.

n!: those are very interesting points...and I agree, but don't you find that facebook is primarily a matter of evesdropping? I don't actually 'say; anything there. i just make friends, bite chumps and take movie quizzes. sometimes, i play scrabble. :D

11/09/2007 1:12 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i agree with you about blogging - it's a totally different activity. from a psychological perspective i don't see google or facebook as being that divergent from real life.

a rare appearance, we are overwhelmed! :-D
the joys are the same eh? you mean qualitatively or quantitatively?

whoa, the 5000-worder comes out here, eh? lots of interesting points. let me see...

1. lovely point. the sequential updating process has been studied a lot but i don't think anyone has ever had occasion to do simultaneous. (because that can be broken down into sequential itself too, right?)

2. you have separate identities? no wonder you have all the stuff on your profile hidden up :-D

3. there's a two step thing there, right -- the first step is you choose whether to type in any of that information or not, and that's similar to real life.

4. there's an element of voyeurism there all right but you're right i wouldn't call it eavesdropping.

11/09/2007 1:19 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ha, i now see what you were getting at. yes you're right about that. i was however talking about the getting to know each other process, and i think you're talking about what happens after that has happened.

11/09/2007 1:26 PM  
Anonymous tabula rasa said...

on second thoughts, i take back my statement that blogging is totally different. it's like a diary that's public -- so in my book it's a dynamically continuous innovation, rather than a discontinuous one.

11/09/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Rhapsody Singer said...

I think the net only allows people to hit on others with a mask of intellectual rubbish. People remain just the same. About a blog being a public diary, I wonder whether a person can truly reveal self online. There's always some amount of manipulation, some showing off. Some carving for attention. The net has only made us more self-loving...that's the difference you were looking for...

11/09/2007 5:00 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

About the blogs and self-love thing: User Friendly put it neatly.

I haven't ventured onto Facebook though I've received a few invites.

I'd say "knowing" someone online is very different from knowing them in person, but not necessarily worse or less complete or more deceptive. Some people may be much better writers than speakers, for example. So you may not want to live with them or have a beer with them but you are happy to conduct a written conversation. And it could be every bit as honest -- or more so -- than personal contact. Sure, people can deceive you online, but they can do that in person too. Happens all the time.

11/10/2007 12:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok maybe am being a party pooper but I found it funny that you are discussing facebook here as if it's some inexplicable natural phenomenon.
Talking purely in technical terms ( coming to the brass tacks of PHP programming) one can pretty much program anything similar to "Facebook"!! Let us not forget it was a social networking website primarily meant for college kids. It wouldnt be an exaggeration to say why these "primary" features were implemented for them :

1) WALL is public because more number of ppl write to you the more popular you are. Ergo it has to be public. If you want private communication heard of something called email?

2) As for making one's profile (or certain info )"private" you surely dont want your other gf/bf to know that you are actually two timing him/her?

If one wants to take a reductionist approach it is "data" in the database tables and you give me a problem statement and I can design/develop any damn application for you which would present data in such a way that makes you think of a new research topic for Sociology/Socio psychology. Or even better get data to corroborate with your thesis topic!!

Though I guess I am looking at this in an entirely different angle...


11/10/2007 5:52 AM  
Blogger km said...

Well, it is harder to get you drunk online.

How does Facebook/Internet compare to "penpals"?

11/10/2007 9:06 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

rhapsody singer:
hello. i think you oversimplify, as rahul points out.

well put. i was wondering about the process of getting acquainted - whether something new might be going on at that end.

hello. i'm afraid i have no idea what you're saying. yes, facebook is a program. and yes, you can program anything you feel like. i don't see how this contradicts, validates, or is even related to the discussion about psychological processes underlying friendship formation. also, it is fascinating to realize that a new format for data presentation is all it takes for a new theory to develop.

yeah, but ppl get drunk then come online -- and that can result in some of the best posts.
nice point about the penpals. the effort bar has come down a lot.

11/10/2007 11:06 PM  
Blogger CrazyDiamond said...

hmm...interesting, though thats like saying its easy to make friends with facebook (in the keeping in touch with them while not really interacting with them sense) and also difficult to know them at the same time (in the keeping in touch with them while not really interacting with them sense)

its a neat innovation but all its really done is replace the telephone of the past...effectively. Chats on the telephone = chats on facebook/gtalk...and then the face to face
now replace the face to face with technology and then we're talking (*pun unintended)

11/11/2007 3:46 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i agree about the chat replacing phone thing. the two advantage of chat over phone, which is why i greatly prefer it, is that you can multi-task while chatting. (sometimes that multi-tasking involves having multiple chat windows open, but even that is a step forward.) not *different* in the sense i've been pushing, but different. not so sure about your first point, though. as you say fb allows you to 'keep in touch' with people (like the guy at the beginning of the post) without really interacting with them. but that's people you already knew irl. my point was about getting to know ppl you hadn't known existed.

11/11/2007 11:01 PM  
Blogger Born a Libran said...

Going to a library and looking for a journal reference without any other information except the topic name must have been such a drag. I am sorry but google has changed behavior patterns in a big way in that aspect of life acc to me.

11/12/2007 6:56 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

hello. it wasn't a drag, in fact, in the must recesses of dimly lit memory it comes up as being an adventure. people back then still searched when they needed information - the bar is lower now, that's all.

11/12/2007 7:20 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/12/2007 10:47 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Interesting. And I am late so all the comments I wanted to make have been made already.

Actually, the post reminded me of a conversation I was having with a professor a while back. He mentioned how blogging in a way leads to friendships/acquaintances being formed on the basis of common interest as opposed to geographical location. I thought that was quite valid and its great in a way if you're a social outcast like me :D

Also, it was very weird when I met up with people I knew via our blogs because it was completely NOT uncomfortable. It was like we'd know each other for eons and making conversation was super easy.

Facebook - ummm my profile is all blocked and very little information revealed. I just think its darned convenient to be in touch with loads of people at the same time and not as formal as emailing them

11/12/2007 10:48 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

I think I have only met two people in real life after getting to know them via blogs -- and one is a journalist with whom I had already corresponded before I read his blog (probably before he had one). As szerlem says, it was very not-uncomfortable, partly because both these people were good conversationalists (good enough to make up for me anyway). I think that reinforces the point that you do get to know people well via blogs and other online media, if they're honest. And I'm not particularly keen on knowing their choice of toothpaste or whatever -- their shared interests are good enough to explore, whether it's over a beer/dinner or via blog comments.

11/12/2007 1:13 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

szerelem, rahul:
certainly friends made online can grow to be as good as friends made IRL. just like penpals, as km pointed out. and when you meet online friends IRL, you can always break the ice by talking about other bloggers :-D

(however i'm not sure how social outcasts get to have friends :-D)

11/13/2007 9:01 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

social outcasts bond with other social outcasts duh.

11/13/2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh! but that stops them being social outcasts, right?

11/13/2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger Born a Libran said...

@tabula rasa: The question is do you do it now? If so, you win...

11/13/2007 12:31 PM  
Blogger ??! said...

Late to the party, but I've been thinking this through. So here's my view -

I don't see how blogging is different, given the examples you've given of how other online activities aren't different.

The example you gave could be likened to one where you know someone - college/work/socially - and even hang out with them for months or years. You know each other's food preferences, and tastes in music, and fashion styles. But then, one day, due to some circumstance, you get really talking. You talk about dreams, and hopes, and embarrassments, and prejudices, and whatnot. And you really know them.

That sort of situation isn't uncommon. And so getting to know another blogger well, after some time of knowing them, isn't that different.

11/13/2007 7:22 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

you're welcome to win if you want, that's not a problem. i haven't been to my school's physical library in months; i do my directed searching online (but i go to the public library every week to browse). i have also not bought a physical newspaper in years (with two notable exceptions); i get my news online. i have not written a physical letter in years. i buy many things online. these days i even play almost all my scrabble online. none of this takes away from the fact that the activities stay the same -- there is no meaningful psychological difference in the way any of these activities are conducted on- versus offline. to return to your particular example, the fact that search costs are lower simply means people search more and perhaps more efficiently than before.

very well put! i am totally with you on this. yes, online friendship facilitating interfaces come with their own sets of protocols, such as possibly preferences for screen names and hesitation at divulging certain types of information. this may be why one may see more "privacy" up front in online fora. however, over the long run it probably evens out just as you describe. thanks for the clarity.

11/14/2007 2:05 AM  
Blogger LostLittleGirl said...

Interesting...but I don't really networks like Facebook are changing anyone deeply. It's just a translation of the inherent curiosity everyone has about others, but it doesn't seem to lead anywhere. I've had so many conversations with old friends over Facebook, and beyond that limited exchange of where you are, and what you study, the relationship reaches a pause. After that everyone is just aware of someone's birthday or that someone broke up. I guess what I'm trying to say is that such exchanges are too superficial to lead anywhere. Knowing likes and dislikes can never compensate for the old-fashioned drink at the usual watering hole. A similar thing happened when too many people vouches for online purchases, instances of which has dwindled now because of the upsurge in credit card frauds. I guess if you complicate something conventional with a medium that is too weak to hold on to, then eventually it falls apart. As for blogger, it definitely has something more substantial, but this too has a certain indulgence of online personalities and massaging egos.

11/14/2007 10:31 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

hello. yes, i agree with what you're saying, but you'll note that my post was about making new friends, not rediscovering old ones. exchanges - online or irl - are only as superficial as one chooses to make them :-)

11/15/2007 2:31 AM  
Blogger LostLittleGirl said...

Yes, I noticed that. But both exchanges seem alike to me, old or new. More than what you choose, it leads to a point where you have nothing new to ask. Of course you may connect with some kindred souls, but largely it fizzles out. Or maybe I'm in a funk and missing the bonhomie :) Nice blog.

11/15/2007 7:26 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks :-) i guess many relationships eventually lead to a point where you have nothing new to ask, but i'd hope that happens *after* you've finished with the introductory stage :-D
tell you what - go watch something funny and then think about some new friends you made. and if that doesn't shake your funk you'll never see the point i'm making.

11/15/2007 9:31 PM  

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