FB – Fluid Boundaries, Fixed Behaviours, Friends Behavingbadly

fbfwCharles Frith (one of my fave twitter buddies btw) writes about two types of people Cold War survivors who see the world as black and white, good and evil and behave guardedly online with spy-like pseudonyms and ‘Post-Coldies” who are more comfortable with a zillion shades of grey and who let it all hang out.

It’s a difference that Helen also touched on in her thoughtful post on social media

Charles also points out that post-coldies don’t mind their friends meeting up, whereas the others will do anything to keep “different” areas of their life separate, even to the extent of lying to their “friends”. No wonder there’s such drama at weddings & funerals.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I feel very much at the post-coldie end of the spectrum but I’m not sure that the Cold War hostilities are the source of this separation, more that these are another manifestation of the same thing – the ancient tussle between what it means to be an individual and what it means to be part of a group, whether that group is at the level of 1:1 relationships, household, village, city, nation or continent (not to mention, planet, which is a whole other metaphysical adventure in itself).

I think another way of putting it is to say that some people are most comfortable getting their rules or boundary conditions from the group and others who are most comfortable setting their boundary conditions themselves. To each of these, the other’s behaviour can seem threatening and dangerous. I would argue that the former lead to more rigid behaviours while the latter lead to more flexible opportunities, but I’m aware that I may have a blind spot around this… and of course we’re talking about preferences, not necessarily hard-wired characteristics.

Ha ha, an example has just sprung to mind. This post is going to be a bit rambly. There are people who will tell you that a post needs a beginning middle and an end, a meaningful title, a relevant illustration and well-constructed tags. Tough shit – this is my blog and I make the rules.

In this context, I’m also thinking a lot about my facebook friending. Whenever there’s a conversation about social networking, sooner or later, Dunbar’s number is quoted – usually people describe it as “the limit to the number of real relationships one person can have” or something equally vague. It’s 150 and it’s more complicated than that description, but I’m thinking, OK, I have more than 150 friends on facebook, what does that mean in the context of Dunbar’s number? Specifically there seemed to be a paradox that although I was over the “limit” there are still a whole bunch of my friends and people with whom I have fairly intimate business and personal relationships who aren’t even on Facebook, let alone “friended” by me.

What I’m thinking at the moment is that I have, until now, (and in common with the cold war survivors) tried to manage groups of up to 150 people in my head – that’s why it feels so difficult! Of course 150 isn’t a limit on the number of people you can know, it’s really a limit on the number of people you can have meaningful relationships with without resorting to further rules and socially agreed boundaries.

So compartmentalising isn’t in itself “a Cold-War thing” or even “a bad thing” it’s a way of keeping our groups of relationships manageable. What online social networking does is to highlight that compartmentalising goes on, that people compartmentalise in different ways and allows for an external representation of a much larger number of my relationships than before which allows you to understand or infer (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) what my rules and boundaries are.

Of course this is probably all covered in Anthropology 101 but I much prefer learning from experience.