Serious Conversation on Facebook

As a quasi-public forum, Facebook today functions more like a cocktail party than a meeting place for close friends.  Most interactions consist of brief updates followed by occasional follow-up posts by those connected to the writer by affinity.   Such a broad access, general purpose, network is not conducive to deep interpersonal conversations. 

A study shared on FastCompany.com by ReD Associates, a Denmark-based consultancy, characterizes many Facebook users as antisocial, noting that they are comforatable in sharing only surfacey tidbits about their life and times online.  A non-scientific glimpse at my Facebook feed concurs with the study's findings.  Typical updates of my friends are of the surfacey cocktail party variety, for example this post that I recently found on my Facebook feed:

Pinkberry frozen yogurt is coming to town- I AM SO EXCITED! The only two things we are missing here is Trader Joe's and frozen yogurt

ReD's survey suggests that my friends are not alone in their reticence to "go deep" online.  When asked to rate whether the following (increasingly serious) messages were appropriate to post on Facebook, the ReD survey's 500 respondents answered as follows:

  • My son graduated from college (92.8% feel this is appropriate)
  • My wonderful father died last night (57.2% feel this is appropriate)
  • My wife left me (10% feel this is appropriate)

That serious personal messages are deemed less appropriate on Facebook is not surprising given the public nature of medium.  Other concerns that might preclude deeper conversations may include concerns about online privacy, the tendency for content to linger online in perpetuity and third party claims of ownership of our online utterances.  Structurally, Facebook updates and comments tend to be relatively terse, making depth of conversation more difficult, though perhaps not impossible.  It also has been noted that Facebook may actually reinforce the surfacy public forum manner of use by making it easy -- perhaps too easy -- to locate and invite old classmates, distant cousins and blasts from the past to become online friends.

Facebook's current emphasis on collecting friends and encouraging terse personal updates is not inherently bad, or good. It merely reinforces the medium's role as a casual public meeting place.  For organizations having a Facebook presence, this suggests the value of a casual, friendly and decidedly short-winded approach.  As such, Facebook may successfully serve as a feeder for the other communication venues, websites for example, where more serious and sustained interactions are facilitated. Nevertheless, any best practices you see here may well seem quaint in a year or two.

So, can one envision a Facebook  that specializes in sustaining deep conversations among thoughtful individuals?  Even with the baggage of an existing Facebook culture and tools that seem to reinforce a cocktail party atmosphere,  much can change and in short order.  For example, Facebook Apps offer a platform capable of bringing rich new types of engagment into the mix, changing in the process how individuals an groups use the medium.  As individuals and organizations experiment with Facebook as a medium, new uses may also emerge.  In the face of intensifying innovation, the role of Facebook and other online tools will shift, hit new plateaus, create new best practices, only to change again.   The constant is that the properties of the tools and culture of the community will shape Facebook and other media as they emerge.