Ted Brasfield - Ethnography

Going Facebook-less Provides a New Perspective

I began this assignment by conducting a self-evaluation regarding my own use of technology. Over the course of one week, I averaged a little over eight hours a day on my computer and about ten hours a day with the television on, almost always overlapping with my time on the computer. That is, while my television is on the entire time I am awake and in my room, I also have my computer by my side most of the same time. However, there are also times when I was reading or doing homework, but because my computer was always open next to me (ready to provide distraction) and the television was kept on, I have to include this in the tally of time used with technology. I found that my time on the weekend was less driven by technology, as I only used the computer about two hours a day but watched five hours of television on Saturday and seven hours through Sunday night. Again, I did some reading during this time with the television on but it does not get turned off as long as I am in my room until I go to sleep. During the week I spend a lot of time just hanging out, procrastinating from my work, but I tend to be more active on weekends.

However, the focus of my ethnography research was centered on the use of Facebook, specifically whether the elimination of Facebook as a near constant source of time-wasting would in any way change my habits of technological consumption. In monitoring my time on the computer, I found that I actually spent very little time on Facebook. I would check it every couple of hours for a mere minute or so, usually not even going beyond refreshing my home page. In fact, while evaluating my use, I certainly came to wonder why I even checked it at all. I was not keeping in touch with anyone in a meaningful way, and most of the people who frequently update their statuses are not the people I am truly interested in. Occasionally I would spend five to ten minutes clicking around on my friends profiles, usually looking at pictures, and if I found something of interest while browsing the web I might post it to a friend’s profile. The truth is, I have no idea what is post-worthy and what is not, so I tend to err on the side of caution and not post very often. My statuses are almost exclusively reserved for celebrating/mourning my favorite sports teams and informing the Facebook community that I will be in an area where I have more than a couple friends. What I mean by this is that if I am going to Charlottesville to visit a specific friend I probably would not post it on Facebook. But if I am coming back to Blacksburg after the summer ends, I do not want to call every one of my friends to see where they are and let them know I’ll be back soon. This is what I find most useful about Facebook, along with the private messaging which has completely replaced email in terms of communication between friends, whereas email remains in the realm of a slightly more formal communication.

Hence, this was the most difficult part of removing myself from the Facebook community. The inane checking of statuses was easy to overcome; after all, I had the entire web to distract myself from it. More difficult was the fact that I now had to text, or make a dreaded phone call, when previously I might just have sent a quick post of Facebook. But before I get into that, let me first detail the surprisingly tedious steps necessary for Facebook deactivation, which I complete on February 24th with the intent of staying off for two weeks (having notified my girlfriend, in order to avoid any unnecessarily dramatic phone calls.)

The first step was to click on Account Settings in the upper right corner and then click on My Account. Once you scroll to the bottom of the page, the very last option reads Deactivate Account with a clickable Deactivate link. Clicking this link leads you to a page which Facebook shows you five random people (my girlfriend, her sister, and three other friends from various social circles) and pictures of you with that person. This is a nice ploy on the part of Facebook, trying to show how you will be letting the community down by removing yourself. However, it did not work on me, and I continued on. Facebook next required me to explain my reason for leaving Facebook, listing eight options and then a space to provide an individual answer. The reasons were:
• I spend too much time on FB.
• This is temporary, I’ll be back.
• I don’t understand how to use FB.
• I don’t find FB useful.
• I don’t feel safe on FB.
• I have another FB account.
• I get too many emails, invitations, and requests from FB.
• I have a privacy concern.

Naturally I selected the first option, as it fit in with the nature of my experiment. However, I realized that had I clicked many of the other options, it probably would have presented me with even more reasons to stay. For example, if you are concerned about security, Facebook would probably show you your security settings and recommend that you update them. Or if you receive too many notifications, Facebook presents those settings and suggests a change. It just goes to show that Facebook really does not want to give up users, as the sheer volume of users is what makes the technology so ubiquitous. There were a couple of final steps before I fully deactivated my account, having to reenter my password and pass one of those random letter-number security checks, but there is an interesting message following my completion of the process. Paraphrased, it said, “Your account is now deactivated. All you have to do to reactivate is login using your same username and password as if nothing has changed. We hope you come back soon.” What I find so interesting about this is that you are never truly deactivated. There is no way to delete your personal history from the Facebook universe.

Once my account had been deactivated, and I got rid of the tab which automatically opens Facebook when I open Firefox, I found that my internet usage continued to mirror my Facebook-usage number at about eight hours a day. I want to say that I was surprised, that I expected myself to use time formerly spent on Facebook to go outside or read a book as opposed to merely browsing other websites, but that would be, at best, wishful thinking. I did not expect much of a change because I was not expecting much of a lifestyle change. Perhaps if I used Facebook more, I would have had a harder time finding other sites to occupy my time. I use the Firefox feature “StumbleUpon” which allows users to basically surf the internet randomly, but with a directional filter. The user goes through broad categories and selects different interests, and more time spent doing this leads to more personalized results for the user. I found that my desertion of Facebook simply lead to spending more time reading articles on ESPN and my local sports blogs and more time stumbling. Something which I did find interesting, particularly with March Madness approaching when I deactivated, was the number of outside sites which link back to Facebook. For example, I found the bracketless March Madness Bracket (http://kottke.org/11/03/the-bracketless-march-madness-bracket), which of course I found intriguing because you do not have to sit there and stress over each pick but rather pick one per seed—you can follow the link if you are interested. But the program runs through Facebook and so there is no way to participate without a Facebook account. This is just one example of the universality which Facebook now has on the internet. If you wish to participate in the internet community, having a Facebook account is a big part of it.

I watched the same amount of television, close to ten hours a day, but I did not hypothesize that Facebook would have any effect on my television usage as they are largely independent of each other, although this is becoming less and less true. I was amazed how many television programs and commercials now include some sort of Facebook pitch or at least the link on screen at the end of the commercial. I had not noticed these pitches before but the absence of Facebook on my computer made me even more aware of it in the outside world. Facebook has placed priority on fostering connections, and while it used to purely emphasize student-to-student connections, it now serves a more universal audience. Facebook connects businesses to consumers, artists to the public, and even connects families across a wide generational gap. I’m sure I am not the only person who has both a mother and grandmother with Facebook accounts.

Two weeks later, when I came back to the Facebook homepage to reactivate my account, I simply typed in my same username and password and logged in as if nothing had changed. I was greeted with a message that said, “Welcome back. Your account has been reactivated. Please note it may take several hours for your groups, events, notes, and other content from applications to be fully restored. Thank you for your patience.” I got a couple of messages from friends but on the whole, I think my absence was too brief to be truly noticed by the Facebook community. Especially as I am not a frequent poster, I was not surprised by the lack of response.

In conclusion, what I found most intriguing about this ethnographic research assignment was the pervasiveness of Facebook. It was difficult for me to avoid Facebook, but not for the reason I originally thought it might be. I was fine not logging on for a couple minutes at a time, checking in on people I couldn’t be bothered to actually call. What was more difficult was avoiding the universal presence of Facebook, with the endless parade of television shows and commercials requesting me to “like” them and websites trying to link me back to and force me to connect through Facebook. I am certainly more and more worried about Facebook's control pervasive presence on the internet and how eventually everything will be personalized. While there are benefits to websites marketing directly to individuals based on their browsing trends, it posits a difficult question in terms of personal security. It feels as if we, as a generation, have collectively agreed that giving up a little privacy if fine as long as it makes things run easier. I am just worried that we may have given up more than we realize.