Facebook, Virtual Proximity, and the Meaning of Relationships

I just celebrated my birthday about a month ago, and received the obligatory birthday wishes on my Facebook wall. It makes me happy to see all those birthday wishes. I’m a bit of a ham when it comes to my own birthday celebrations. But for Vikki Ortiz Healy over at the Chicago Tribune, such Facebook wishes are a plight of insincerity in the digital era.

I completely understand where she’s coming from. E-cards only count for so much, depending on who sent them. And Facebook wall greetings seem even less sincere because Facebook alerts you to every upcoming and current birthday for your entire social graph. That’s right. All those people that left wonderful wall greetings on your birthday didn’t even have to try to remember the occasion–Facebook did all the work for them.

But is this really any different from the other random people in your life wishing you well on your day of birth? What about that bouncer that checked your I.D. as you entered the club, and, noticing your birthday coincided with the current date, wished you a happy birthday? Or the friendly mailman that waved happy birthday to you after he noticed all the cards and coupons that suddenly filled your mailbox?

Let’s bring it a little closer to home. Your coworkers typically know your birthday, and sometimes your neighbors do as well. Sure, you see all of these people in person, but they still may have offered up their birthday greetings out of obligation instead of sincerity.

Fixing The Proximity Dilemma

Face it. Facebook is the new water cooler. We as humans have a tendency to associate with people due to our proximity to them. We chat with our neighbors because they live on the same street as we do, and we see them all the time. We chat with our coworkers because they work on the same floor and eat lunch at the same time as we do.

Sure, it seems weird that your 8th grade classmate hit you up on Facebook. But if that same classmate had gone to the same high school and college, and lived nearby 20 years later, there’s an increased likelihood that the two of you would have kept in touch. Not to say that you’d be best friends, but your proximity to each other would have increase the potential for you to continuously cross paths. These intersections of our lives give us opportunities to catch up with our acquaintances, see what’s going on in each other’s lives, and then move on.

What Facebook does is remove a portion of the proximity dilemma, giving you the opportunity to stay close to each other in the virtual sense. You see friends’ updates and the photos of their Cabo vacation. You’re able to remain digitally close to 8th grade classmates because you have access to their shared moments in life. Facebook extends the concept of building relationships around proximity, as the very definition of proximity is forever changed with the introduction of social networking.

Further driving this change is the mobile realm, making proximity acutely irrelevant for the purpose of accessing one’s shared content. If you have the mobile web, then you have the ability to view those photos directly from your phone, keeping you at arm’s length from your Facebook contacts.

I’m not saying that your entire social awareness will be forever changed, and that physical interaction can be completely replaced with status updates and photo albums. But I think Facbook has been around long enough for us to recognize its game-changing potential.

Monetizing Proximity

Even more interesting is the monetization of this virtual proximity. In automating certain aspects of your social interaction, Facebook becomes a personal assistant of sorts, cultivating your relationships through a program. We as consumers appreciate the convenience of not having to remember birthdays or manually mark them on a calendar. Those acquaintances we’ve reconnected with on Facebook may be important to us, but not important enough to go out of our way. What’s more fitting than a casual greeting on their Facebook wall? And what’s more convenient than a $1 virtual gift to post along with it?

Publish date: November 3, 2009 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/facebook-virtual-proximity-and-the-meaning-of-relationships/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT