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Facebook: the elephant in the room (and it's watching you)

October 13, 2009

by Kevin Burke
Facebook: the elephant in the room (and it's watching you)

"Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you." - The Police

Social networking recently overtook porn as the #1 source of traffic on the internet, so it may not be too surprising that the most popular use of social networking sites is voyeurism. From a recent study by Jan Piskorski at Harvard Business School:

The biggest discovery [for the researchers was] pictures. "People just love to look at pictures," says Piskorski. "That's the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people's profiles."

The largest usage category is men looking at pictures of women they don't know, followed by men looking at pictures of women they know, and then women looking at pictures of other women; women's pages are viewed twice as often as men's pages. This explains why politicians and companies fail so badly at establishing their own social networks - users want to know more about the people in their lives and Ford et al can't really deliver those to them, at least in a way that Facebook can't.

As Tyler Cowen argues in his new book, Create Your Own Economy, humans are information addicts, and Facebook gives us more information about our friends than we've had at any point in human history. Every new photo album or new friend creates a new piece of information to devour, a new set of relations and stories to process and comment on; this is why we need to check Facebook continuously throughout the day. But why photos in particular?

The simple explanation is that Facebook allows us to scrutinize people we're interested in without them knowing about it, but a more subtle explanation is that photos give others a very good idea of someone's relative status. By looking at how comfortable they are, how they're interacting with the people in the photos, and who they're interacting with in photos (whether they have photos?), we can get a good sense of where someone stands in the social pecking order.

What are the implications? The tendency of men to ogle anything with a pulse is well known, but women should be wary of accepting friend requests from mere acquaintances, and of having their photos on a low privacy setting (unless they want lots of people to see their photos, which is a signal in itself). Everyone should also be aware that they're getting judged based on the content of photos that they're tagged in. Perhaps the friend of yours who obsessively tags and un-tags photos of him- or her-self might be on to something. If you don't want to be judged based on your photos, try Twitter. And Jamie-Lynn Sigler may have been right to be wary of Turtle's Facebook habits: "This was a very big surprise: A lot of guys in relationships are looking at women they don't know," says Piskorski. "It's an easy way to see if anyone might be a better match."

We've come to the point where a crusty fart is supposed to condemn our generation's depravity and wonder where things went wrong. But we're no more immoral than previous generations; we just have tools for sharing information (and for prying) that no one could have dreamed of fifty years ago. We're still figuring out how to use those tools. So, maybe instead of using Facebook to troll for hot women, use it to deepen friendships, reminisce instantly about the previous night, and post funny status updates. No one likes trolls. And if you see a hottie around campus, try talking instead of stalking. It's what people did before computers.

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