Fifteen Years on Facebook: How Social Media is Changing Our Relationships

Feb 22, 2019

Facebook turned 15 this month, and 214 million Americans continue to share thoughts, pictures, memes, articles, and propaganda with family, friends, acquaintances, and maybe even strangers. 

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe starts the hour with a friendship that might never have formed if it weren't for Facebook: her own Facebook and real-life friend Eve Menzel.

Then, Michael Harris, author of the new book Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, and Rachel Young, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, join to discuss the evolution of social media and weigh in on how Facebook and other social media sites have changed our relationships.

There are a multitude of benefits to using social media, including staying in touch with friends or acquaintances who we might otherwise lose contact with. These friends may then be able to connect us with job opportunities or events or even give travel tips for a place they've recently visited. 

"When you look at people's social networks we can often think of them in terms of strong ties, so the friends and family who you're really close to, and then the weak ties, the people that you're acquaintances with," Young says. "Social media really allows us to stay in touch with weak ties... social media gives us a way to still let those people know what we're up to and to find out what they're up to as well."

In terms of drawbacks, we're familiar with common complaints about social media: that it creates a culture of comparison and competition, doesn't display the realities of everyday life, spreads inaccurate news, and may create distance from your in-person relationships. Harris points out that this culture of comparison is one that social media sites themselves may be exploiting. 

"We make ourselves into objects of desire for our friend groups, we post things that inspire envy or competition, and that's of course super useful if you are a social media platform that's making all of its money by selling advertisements," Harris says. "You've got more than two billion users all feeling excluded from the happy lives of their friends on Facebook, and then you hit them with ads that offer a pathway to a happier life."

Completely removing ourselves from social media, though, can seem like a daunting task. Harris recommends thinking in terms of curating your media usage to get the most out of how you're using social media. 

"One of the things that happens when you walk away from certain aspects of social media is you realize how for some people it has become just the air that they breathe. It's become a given," Harris says. "That's really the most valuable part of taking a weekend away from social media or a weekend away from the internet. It wakes you up to the fact that these things don't have to be givens."