Trying Not to Lose Face

by Henry Farrell on July 11, 2007

Like, it seems, umpteen others, I set up a Facebook profile for myself a couple of weeks ago. When I did, I found that plenty of friends from widely scattered parts of my social network had done the same thing, mostly around the same time. This does seem to me to be a genuine tipping phenomenon. I’ve been feeling a little guilty about not knowing more about Facebook and MySpace, given that I teach classes on how the Internet is changing politics and society. But I didn’t feel ready to actually set myself up, partly because I wasn’t sure what the point was, and partly because I was worried that I’d end up without any friends, exposed to the scorn and pity of the multitude. As my sister Maria said (before joining up herself and finding that she had lots of friends), Facebook is an opportunity to play the social game again – and lose. If other people shared our apprehension, it’s perhaps not surprising that lots of them have decided to join at the same time, when everybody knew that there were enough other people who they knew doing the same thing that the risk of public embarrassment was relatively slight.

Via “Rebecca MacKinnon”:, this “post”: by Mark Glaser has additional speculation on why so many lemmings plunged over the cliff at the same time, and why they plunged into Facebook in particular. I’d be interested to know why CT readers have or haven’t joined Facebook or other social networking type sites; I should also let people know that there is now a Crooked Timber group on Facebook (content currently consisting of a few photos of CTers mugging at the camera; more surely to follow).

{ 6 trackbacks }

Crooked Timber » » Sparse Small-World Graphs Are Disturbing
07.11.07 at 10:10 pm
Kieran Healy’s Weblog » Blog Archive » Sparse Small-World Graphs are Disturbing
07.12.07 at 2:12 am
Crooked Timber » » Facebook Madness
07.12.07 at 2:56 am
Time to Go to Bed § Unqualified Offerings
07.13.07 at 3:46 am
Easily Distracted » Blog Archive » Criticality
07.13.07 at 6:57 pm
07.17.07 at 2:05 pm



Kieran Healy 07.11.07 at 5:29 pm

I just signed up to see. Inevitably, Henry is my only friend. And I’ve only met him once.


jacob 07.11.07 at 5:41 pm

When I graduated from college, Friendster was the thing to be on. I refused on the basis that I could not see why I should create a list of friends and associates, ripe for the plucking by the government.

Because Facebook was for so long an undergrad-only preserve, I always found it a bit creepy when my grad-student friends (and those not in school) signed up. To me, Facebook was for undergrads, and joining was somewhat equivalent to leering at the freshman girls.

Now it seems that I’m the only one not on. I admit I sometimes use my girlfriend’s account to check on the walls maintained by my college friends, but I refuse to join out of the original principle of not wanting to create a list of friends and associates. Also, of course, there’s an element of being contrary.


tom s. 07.11.07 at 5:49 pm

I resisted setting up an account because I did not want to intrude on whatever dubious teenage communications my son was involved in on Facebook, and I wanted to avoid the creepy factor Jacob mentions (being well beyond undergrad age). If there is one thing worse than being unpopular it is being unpopular and creepy. It turns out that one thing Facebook is quite good at is preserving privacy, so I needn’t have worried – or at least, not about intruding.

After setting up an account I decided no one really needed to see my date of birth, views on politics, etc, so I unchecked the Marriage button. My few friends then got notified that I am no longer married. There are potential dangers here…

I actually joined because I’m communications officer for our NDP riding association (that’s constituency association to non-Canadians) and while I’m posting announcements on our web site I might as well do so to the facebook crowd too.

I’m quite impressed with facebook. Nevertheless, now I have joined I am sure it is well on its way to being last year’s thing.

And yes, I am a Friend Of Henry.


reuben 07.11.07 at 6:11 pm

I’m tempted to agree with your tipping point theory. I’m in my late 30s in London, and have been bombarded with facebook invites from others like me over teh last two months. Interestingly, many of these are from the exact same people who failed to contribute to a group friend blog we all set up last year. They’ve all said the same thing: for those of us who are comfortable presenting our lives and interests through text, the blog was a great tool, but for the majority who felt uncomfortable with that medium, because they didn’t feel they were good writers, it was more stress than it was worth. Facebook, they say, frees them from this.

What’s especially interesting is that this group of friends, while not all luddites, are not exactly what I would call well attuned to modern technologies. My girlfriend, for instance, doesn’t know how to set an out of office assistant in outlook, yet she’s on facebook!

Ironically, even though I’m by far the earliest adopter among this social group, I’ve resisted this summer’s onslaught of facebook invites, because I am desperately racing to get my masters dissertation written before we have our first baby in mid-August – so all this is passing me by right now.


J. Ellenberg 07.11.07 at 6:27 pm

I opened up a Facebook page about a year ago. Mostly because I teach in college and it seems to be a big part of student life, so I wanted to understand what it was. I think I still don’t really understand, to tell the truth. For me, the “news feed” is actually the point — I have about 40 “friends,” many of whom are people I don’t talk to at all regularly, and it’s an interesting moment’s diversion to check the page and see what they describe themselves as doing. But I’d think this feature would be annoying or at least useless for people who have hundreds of friends; is it?


christian h. 07.11.07 at 6:50 pm

Not to appear snobbish, but can somebody explain why one should sign up? Is it a better way of keeping in contact with friends than, say, email? What’s the deal here?

Also, precisely because most of my students probably are on there, I don’t want to be. Do I really want to see how they cheat off each other’s homework? Much better to be blissfully ignorant…


Scott Spiegelberg 07.11.07 at 6:52 pm

My reasons were the same as #5, to understand what my students are talking about and experiencing. Since then, many of my colleagues, friends, and relatives (including my mom!) have joined. The best part is reminding me when various birthdays are coming up.


Kieran Healy 07.11.07 at 6:53 pm

Do I really want to see how they cheat off each other’s homework?

Probably they won’t let you be their friends, so your bliss is assured.


Ancarett 07.11.07 at 7:16 pm

I joined several years back to help pump up my young cousin’s friend list (he was just starting his undergrad). I peeked back in this year after seeing all the media mentions and I’m still one of a very few faculty members at my institution who’re on the site. Now I check in daily and have gotten in touch with several old friends so I think the site’s fulfilling some of its promises.


jim 07.11.07 at 7:16 pm

I joined a couple of years ago, basically so I could set faces against names when I got my class rosters. I haven’t done anything with the account though. It’s just to look students up, and just the once.

I’m not sure I even know how to friend someone.


ben 07.11.07 at 8:29 pm

I joined two years back at the prodding of my undergrad students. I maintain a very minimal presence. The whole “grad student in an undergrad world” thing seemed a bit odd at first, but as the facebook OGs grow up and become grad students themselves things seem to be leveling out. Unfortunately I still cannot explain to anyone why facebook is somehow better for communicating with friends via email, but I’m not going to insist otherwise lest I sound like someone advocating the phone or conventional letterwriting over email.


harry b 07.11.07 at 8:48 pm

I have never been invited to join, though I understand that the greatest living englishman is a member (which answers christian h’s question). Lindsey talks about facebook friends here (, and it gives me the creeps.


John Quiggin 07.11.07 at 9:09 pm

I just got invited to, and joined, a work-oriented thing called LinkedIn. The person who invited me also invited lots of others in my general blog circle, but I have no idea if anything will come of this.


eszter 07.11.07 at 9:16 pm

I signed up in April ’04 and wasn’t concerned about how many connections I had on there. I don’t need to rely on a service of that sort to help me figure out whether I have friends or not.;) In any case, I’m used to signing up for things and not having 98-99% of my friends join. For a while I end up learning more about certain people than I need, but then eventually, on occasion, more actual friends join and then it’s fun and useful as well. I should be working on my talk for this evening so I can’t go on about this at length, but one of these days I will get around to blogging about why I think these services can be interesting. I also had a post almost ready to go about Facebook vs MySpace users, but that seems to have disappeared so I’ll have to start over.

There’s a whole other issue about which of your networks you want to connect to your profile in the first place. For now, I’m not accepting friend invitations from students (not my own students anyway), but if I want to use the service in teaching (which I might) then that won’t necessarily work so well. Something to think about…


eszter 07.11.07 at 9:20 pm

And to answer Henry’s original question: I think a major tipping point for Facebook (in addition to expanding past college students) was when they opened up their API allowing outside developers to create features for it. This has really taken off in the last month or so. (See Applications on Facebook.)

Regarding LinkedIn, it is quite different and shouldn’t be confused with Facebook. Very different functionalities, especially for non-paying members. Not much functionality would be a more direct way of putting that actually.


John Quiggin 07.11.07 at 9:49 pm

Thanks, eszter, that was my impression on LinkedIn also. Maybe I’ll try Facebook now.


Russell 07.11.07 at 10:39 pm

Evidently, I have Facebook and MySpace accounts, though I did not create either of them. One of my friends (I’m still not sure which) decided to create them for me, and to populate them with accurate data.

I suppose I could take over the accounts, but as unsettling as it is, I think it’s much more convenient to have someone else keep my data up-to-date than to do it myself.


agm 07.11.07 at 11:19 pm


tom hurka 07.11.07 at 11:28 pm

A lot of Facebook wall posts are witty, or intended to be witty, comments on a friend’s doings, pictures, etc. In an e-mail, they go just to your friend; on Facebook they can be read by everyone in your social circle. It’s the difference between making a joke to an audience of one and to a whole interested group. Isn’t it understandable that some prefer the latter? I suspect it goes with what I think is the tendency of undergrads and even grad students these days to socialize, i.e. go out to bars, clubs, etc. in much larger groups than my generation did (yikes!) decades ago. And am I right that the normal accepted length for a Facebook wall post is shorter than for an e-mail, which in turn is shorter than for an old-fashioned letter?


Cranky Observer 07.11.07 at 11:46 pm

Wait until your children reject your request to add you as a Friend. Karen Tumelty over at the Time Magazine blog wrote about it this week, but it happened to me a few months ago ;-(. Quite crushing!



ArC 07.11.07 at 11:55 pm

I can’t remember why I joined Facebook a couple of months ago… I think it was just on a whim, no invitation. But then I found a bunch of my friends on there anyways, and a lot of them also had joined recently.


vivian 07.12.07 at 12:31 am

I was invited by a sort of mushy blackmail: a friend (who comments here) informed me that since he updated his facebook page with baby photos, and interesting things in his life, he no longer took responsibility for emailing those things to friends who prefered “old-fashioned” tech like email. “That’s so nineteen-nineties!” I could hear him thinking scornfully, while I was thinking “Eww, that’s so, like, AOL-ish.”

Well, no, actually, he was very nice about it (being Canadian and all), and sometime I might even check back for new baby and travel photos. Now that it has the official CT stamp of uncreepiness.


IanR 07.12.07 at 12:42 am

I joined to better associate faces with names among my students. A year ago I had one or two friends – in the last few months it has exploded with people I went to high school and undergrad with. It’s nice to touch base with people you haven’t seen in 10 years…or in the case of two friends from primary school that I haven’t seen in 25 years.

But I think Jorge Cham has it best – Facebook is a tool for Notworking.


shub-negrorath 07.12.07 at 1:58 am

I’ve always felt that a social-networking site geared specifically toward academics that could keep users informed on their colleagues’ promotions/publications/initiatives, interesting papers from outside their discipline, new funding sources, etc. would be pretty useful. But perhaps something like this already exists and I’m missing out?


Tom T. 07.12.07 at 2:04 am

Henry, designating oneself as a tipping point seems a bit like writing one’s own Wikipedia entry.


lindsey 07.12.07 at 2:14 am

Believe it or not, facebook has generated a whole slew of terms that almost every undergrad knows, and many frequently use. A “facebook friend” is someone who is your friend on facebook who you would otherwise not be friends with. Why be a facebook friend? I don’t know, but I think deep down every undergrad has stalker tendencies, and what better way to avoid doing work than looking up the daily happenings of an acquaintance? It’s disturbing, but true. The worst is what facebook has done to relationships. You used to only worry about when it was okay to call each other boyfriend/girlfriend, but now, you also fret over when it’s okay to put the relationship status up on facebook. When you put it up, it’s called being “facebook official.” And some people go so far as to say that the relationship isn’t real until it’s on facebook for the world to see. But of course, that means when you break up all of your friends will see a cheesy broken heart on their home page with the official announcement of your relationship’s demise.

As for the wall, it’s proof that each generation gets a little bit lazier. Why send a whole email when 1-10 words will do? Though, it’s not that much easier. When I introduced my french friends who are studying abroad over here to facebook, they could not understand how wall messages are easier than emails, esp when you have to receive the alert in your email saying that someone wrote on your wall and then go log into facebook and check it. And don’t even ask about the poke…it’s a mystery to me too.


dr ngo 07.12.07 at 3:02 am

Joined last week at the behest of my son (and now my “friend”) who is travelling around the world and posting his photos, as he goes, to Facebook. Otherwise the world of Facebook seems a totally alien one, in which everyone is at least a generation younger than I.


will u. 07.12.07 at 3:22 am

“But of course, that means when you break up all of your friends will see a cheesy broken heart on their home page with the official announcement of your relationship’s demise.”

That will be my problem in twenty-four to forty-eight hours. I’ll remove it from my mini-News Feed, but I’m not sure that’ll prevent it from going out over the global News Feed.


Kenny Easwaran 07.12.07 at 5:09 am

I thought the big tipping-point phenomenon was when they allowed you to import your contacts from your webmail programs. That day I got added by two friends from other grad schools that I’ve met at conferences, and realized they had probably imported their contact list, so I figured I should do the same. They give you a choice about whether to invite your non-facebook friends on, and I bet some small number of people accidentally invite everyone that way. I know several very non-facebook type people added me just after that point, so that was my guess.


Mr Art 07.12.07 at 8:49 am

You can stop the broken-heart cheese by clicking Privacy – News Feed and Mini-Feed – Remove my Relationship Status. I found this out too late!


maria 07.12.07 at 8:54 am

As to why Facebook is more attractive than keeping up with friends by email, it’s like the text message comparison to phone calls: a more non-committal, low investment mode of communication. You can ‘keep up’ with friends from many parts and periods of your life without having to maintain a continuous conversation with them. Quite handy, really.


Mr Art 07.12.07 at 8:54 am

I should add that you must then change Relationship Status to ‘Select Status:’


maria 07.12.07 at 8:57 am

26 – That’s a bit mean-spirited. Henry didn’t designate himself as tipping point. He observed that many parts of his varied social network were adopting Facebook at around the same time, and thought this was a tipping phenomenon.


Katherine 07.12.07 at 9:47 am

I joined just a week or so ago because I had been invited by a couple of people and thought it was about time to see what it was all about. When I did I was surprised but quite pleased to see that a large number of my immediate social circle had also recently joined and we were soon merrily posting inane things on each others walls. There certainly seemed to be a tipping point element to it.

Since quite a few of us had paired off and moved out from shared houses to couple-y arrnagements in the last couple of years, our contact levels had changed quite a bit and our friendships moved to a different phase. Facebook is now seeming like a really good way of keeping up to date with the general stuff, without requiring random group emails, as we used to.

No plans so far to cultivate “Facebook friends” – for me, this seems like a genuinely useful way of maintaining an already existing network.

Also, just in the week since I joined I’ve found and restablished contact with two friends I hadn’t seen for a good few years and was very glad to have been able to track down so easily.


Tom T. 07.12.07 at 11:47 am

My comment at #26 was intended only as a gentle poke; I thought Henry’s reaction was cute.

In deference to #36, I suppose I should have written, “Henry, designating one’s circle of friends as a tipping point seems a bit like writing one’s own Wikipedia entry.”


maria 07.12.07 at 12:06 pm

fair enough – sorry tt, m


Thom Brooks 07.12.07 at 12:09 pm

After thinking MySpace was ‘kewl’ (as I had plenty of friends on it), I then became alerted to Facebook which I now quite enjoy. It is surprising how few of us over 30 have joined…and how many of our undergraduates are on. Just look out for ‘Appreciation Societies’ of colleagues that, well, aren’t about appreciation…


John Quiggin 07.12.07 at 1:07 pm

My son friended me. Yay!


Danbye 07.12.07 at 1:28 pm

When I search for the Crooked Timber group on Facebook I get “I’ve got nothing for you”. Am I being dumb, or is it a closed group I’m not allowed to join?


Katherine 07.12.07 at 1:33 pm

I couldn’t find it either danbye. Clearly we aren’t good enough.


KCinDC 07.12.07 at 2:32 pm

Same for me, Danbye and Katherine. Also, Facebook seems to be very limited for those of us without academic e-mail addresses who don’t work for large companies, since it appears you can’t search for people who aren’t in your networks. But perhaps I’m missing something.


Richard Zach 07.12.07 at 2:37 pm


Henry 07.12.07 at 2:39 pm

Crooked Timber’s group should be “here”: I hope (I am presuming that this is a stable URL). It’s a group, not a network – is that what has been messing people up?


omicron 07.12.07 at 2:52 pm

A third for the ‘can’t find the Crooked Timber group’ group. Maybe we should start our own group?


omicron 07.12.07 at 2:58 pm

Guess I should have refreshed the page before posting, thanks henry!


mo 07.12.07 at 3:37 pm

“To me, Facebook was for undergrads, and joining was somewhat equivalent to leering at the freshman girls.”

Okay, sign me up.


Eszter 07.12.07 at 4:43 pm

KC – It’s up to people to designate privacy settings as to whether they show up on searches performed by people outside of their networks. Plenty of people have found me who are not in any of my organizationally-based networks. I think it’s the default that people can find you so if doesn’t require that people have the know-how to change privacy settings. I suspect what’s going on in your case is that perhaps many people in your networks simply haven’t signed up (yet?).


Dan Bye 07.12.07 at 5:00 pm

I’ve joined the CT group now – and suddenly there’s a whole other conversation to be had: what factors govern what groups one chooses to join on Facebook?

I’m a member of about fifteen groups, ranging from my own theatre company through CT to “Biafra for President 2008” (although I’m not an American and I assume he’s not running). Although ostensibly one joins groups to be kept up to date about certain things, in fact I reckon one joins in order to project a certain self-image outward to one’s social networks. I want people to know I like thoughtful blogging, punk music and comically radical politics, so I join groups that help me advertise those preferences. Am I alone?


KCinDC 07.12.07 at 5:35 pm

Thanks, Eszter. I was confused by the interface, which says it searches “My Network and Friends” but in fact seems to search more than that. I’ll have to see if I can unearth my never-used and otherwise pointless alumni e-mail addresses so I can join my university networks.


Jacob Christensen 07.12.07 at 8:25 pm

The target Henry & co. has to go for is 2,452 friends. Robert Scoble did that in one month.

I think I’ll just wander off to the mountains and live like a digital hermit… (No, I don’t have a Facebook profile)


lindsey 07.12.07 at 9:57 pm

The groups are usually supposed to be funny, though some serve actual purposes. For example, I’m in a group for people doing an international internship next year. Our program gives us zero info, so as a group we collectively try to figure out what’s going on. The group can be universal, so all the assistants from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc are on there, and I suppose this sort of community wouldn’t have been as successful sans facebook. But again, most of the groups are just a way of describing your interests/etc outside of the personal info field. In fact, because the groups you join tell something about your personality, many students leave most/many of the groups they’re in when they start applying for jobs (not to mention they edit their personal info, and/or pull down their account). Any thoughts on employers using facebook to check out potential employees? Or universities for that matter…


lindsey 07.12.07 at 10:01 pm

Sorry wrong link, I meant this post.


Ben Saunders 07.12.07 at 10:13 pm

Why I joined? Well, it had reached us (UK) in my final year of undergrad though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. A few years into postgrad and it seemed every undergrad was on there – our student paper even printed people’s profiles in their blind dating column. I just joined out of curiosity really, and found a whole bunch of people did around the same time (it being start of the year). Now it’s amazing how quickly it spreads to new students in fresher’s week, and I’m finding old school/undergrad friends.


Colin Farrelly 07.13.07 at 1:17 pm

The Facebook skit is great:


zebbidies spring 07.14.07 at 10:09 pm

There is a PhD thesis been completed on how the choice of MySpace or Facebook correlates to one’s social strata. At its most crude, Facebook = “educated ruling class teens” and MySpace = “multiple piercing, panda-eye mascara freaks” .

A rather peeved story on it at IT WIRE and the actual thesis by Danah Boyd, a post graduate student at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, is here.

So you lot are the hegemon. Bastards!

I’m being oppressed!


zebbidies spring 07.14.07 at 10:26 pm

Actually that link isn’t her thesis, it’s her writing about it.

I will now retire to the library with a bottle of Glenfiddich and a revolver..

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