Notice to my friends: I love you all dearly.
But I don’t give a hoot that you are “having a busy Monday,” your child “took 30 minutes to brush his teeth,” your dog “just ate an ant trap” or you want to “save the piglets.” And I really, really don’t care which Addams Family member you most resemble. (I could have told you the answer before you took the quiz on Facebook.)
Here’s where you and I went wrong: We took our friendship online. First we began communicating more by email than by phone. Then we switched to “instant messaging” or “texting.” We “friended” each other on Facebook, and began communicating by “tweeting” our thoughts—in 140 characters or less—via Twitter.
All this online social networking was supposed to make us closer. And in some ways it has. Thanks to the Internet, many of us have gotten back in touch with friends from high school and college, shared old and new photos, and become better acquainted with some people we might never have grown close to offline.
But there’s a danger here, too. If we’re not careful, our online interactions can hurt our real-life relationships.
Like many people, I’m experiencing Facebook Fatigue. I’m tired of loved ones—you know who you are—who claim they are too busy to pick up the phone, or even write a decent email, yet spend hours on social-media sites, uploading photos of their children or parties, forwarding inane quizzes, posting quirky, sometimes nonsensical one-liners or tweeting their latest whereabouts. (“Anyone know a good restaurant in Berlin?”)
One of the big problems is how we converse. Typing still leaves something to be desired as a communication tool; it lacks the nuances that can be expressed by body language and voice inflection.
But let’s face it, the problem is much greater than which tools we use to communicate. It’s what we are actually saying that’s really mucking up our relationships. “Oh my God, a college friend just updated her Facebook status to say that her ‘teeth are itching for a flossing!'” shrieked a friend of mine recently. “That’s gross. I don’t want to hear about what’s going on inside her mouth.”
That prompted me to check my own Facebook page, only to find that three of my pals—none of whom know each other—had the exact same status update: “Zzzzzzz.” They promptly put me to “zzzzzzz.”
This brings us to our first dilemma: Amidst all this heightened chatter, we’re not saying much that’s interesting, folks. Rather, we’re breaking a cardinal rule of companionship: Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Friends.
“It’s called narcissism,” says Matt Brown, a 36-year-old business-development manager for a chain of hair salons and spas in Seattle. He’s particularly annoyed by a friend who works at an auto dealership who tweets every time he sells a car, a married couple who bicker on Facebook’s public walls and another couple so “mooshy-gooshy” they sit in the same room of their house posting love messages to each other for all to see. “Why is your life so frickin’ important and entertaining that we need to know?” Mr. Brown says.
‘I Just Ate a Frito Pie’
Gwen Jewett, for her part, is sick of meal status updates. “A few of my friends like to post several times a day about what they are eating: ‘I just ate a Frito pie.’ ‘I am enjoying a double hot-fudge sundae at home tonight.’ ‘Just ate a whole pizza with sausage, peppers and double cheese,'” says the 49-year-old career coach in suburban Dallas. “My question is this: If we didn’t call each other on the phone every time we ate before, why do we need the alerts now?”
For others, boredom isn’t the biggest challenge of managing Internet relationships. Consider, for example, how people you know often seem different online—not just gussied up or more polished, but bolder, too, displaying sides of their personalities you have never seen before.
And then there’s jealousy. In all that information you’re posting about your life—your vacation, your kids, your promotions at work, even that margarita you just drank—someone is bound to find something to envy. So what’s the solution?
Short of “unfriending” or “unfollowing” everyone who annoys you? You can use the “hide” button on Facebook to stop getting your friends’ status updates—they’ll never know—or use TwitterSnooze, a Web site that allows you to temporarily suspend tweets from someone you follow. (Warning: They’ll get a notice from Twitter when you begin reading their tweets again.)
But these are really just Band-Aid tactics. To improve our interactions, we need to change our conduct, not just cover it up. First, watch your own behavior, asking yourself before you post anything: “Is this something I’d want someone to tell me?” “Run it by that focus group of one,” says Johns Hopkins’s Dr. Wallace.
And positively reward others, responding only when they write something interesting, ignoring them when they are boring or obnoxious. (Commenting negatively will only start a very public war.)
If all that fails, you can always start a new group: “Get Facebook to Create an Eye-Roll Button Now!”