The other day I found myself in a restaurant in northern Japan explaining to a South Korean acquaintance of less than a day how I divided my social networks up. LinkedIn, I said, was for people I needed to know, or who felt they need to know me. Facebook was for my friends — people I had known for a long time, family, I keep my Facebook world for my real world friends, I said. He nodded sagely before we were interrupted by two young Japanese from across the table who had just joined the throng.
I dutifully rummaged round for my business cards for the time-honored ritual of using both hands to exchange cards and study them intently. Our new dinner companions, had no truck with that. We don’t have business cards, one of them said, whipping out his iphone. But give me your name and I’ll add you on Facebook. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this etiquette-wise, but turning him down was not an option. My Korean friend kindly avoided pointing out my hypocrisy as I dutifully helped my even newer friend add me to Facebook. Within the hour he had tagged me on several photos of diners other than myself, which in turn had been commented upon by at least 60 of his friends. All of course, in Japanese.
Welcome to the weird world of Facebook. Foolish people call it a nation, And if you glanced over the shoulder of anyone at an airport, in Starbucks, on a train, in the office, at the familiar blue ribboned page as they check back in to their portable community, you might be forgiven for thinking they inhabit the same country. But it’s not and they don’t. It’s a reflection, an adaptation of the culture, or subculture, of the people who populate it, And while there’s perhaps more overlap than the physical world between those cultures, there’s still plenty of room for the culture shock of finding yourself in another part of the Facebook planet. Only there are no guidebooks and rules, just people trying to muddle through. Like me in that Sendai restaurant.
This is of course both good and bad. I actually quite like having some folk on my Facebook page chattering away in a language I need Microsoft or Google to make sense of. But it doesn’t make us friends. And it does somewhat devalue the connection that Facebook builds to my real friends. Their updates get crowded out by the friends who aren’t really my friends.
But the bigger point is this. Facebook is not homogenizing the world. In fact, it’s a mirror of the cultures from which we come. And by mirror I mean mirror. Take Facebook photos, for example: Researchers have found that Americans, despite being individualistic by nature, prefer to share photos of themselves in groups on Facebook. Compare this with China, or even Namibia, two societies considered group-oriented, where users are much more likely to share photos of themselves standing alone,, smart and polished, often not even against a background which might justify posting the photo. Researchers believe this is because of the desire in such societies to project a good image of themselves to the group.
Go figure. It might help explain my Japanese friends and their business card etiquette. Perhaps for them the exchange of business cards is an intimate expression of trust, and the most obvious online equivalent of that is the Facebook friending.. I with my Western hypocrisy and shallowness make no such commitment with my business card exchange. Or maybe they’re just a subset of a of subset of a subculture that thinks business cards are silly and Facebook is cool. I have no idea. Facebook it seems, is as interesting and confusing to navigate as the real world. Thank God for that.