Facebook and Family

 “I was hesitant to add family members on Facebook at first, but I’ve grown to enjoy it.  I’m not very good at keeping in touch with family, so I feel like if I’ve posted on Facebook I’ve done enough”—Mark, a Facebook user from California

Facebook is everywhere!  However, the effects of Facebook on society are still unfolding. The company states that “Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”  Facebook users create their own profile pages, which contain biographical data, current events, and photographs. This information all appears in chronological order on the users’ “timeline.” Facebook users update their “status,” a brief message alerting friends to their whereabouts, feelings, rants, etc.  Users can also create online social groups, support causes, and send invitations to their friends for events.  According to Facebook, as of December 2013, the site has approximately 1.2 billion monthly active users and 757 million daily active users globally, which means that Facebook has far surpassed the Google search engine as the most visited website in the United States.

Originally called “the Facebook,” Facebook was designed to allow college students at Harvard University to connect online.  However, according to the Pew Internet Project, as of January 2014, 74%of online adults report that they use Facebook; given the current make-up of Facebook users, studying only young people’s use of the site is no longer legitimate.  This article compiles data from a small online survey of Facebook users of various ages from across the United States (N=289).  This study investigates how families use Facebook for communication and kin-keeping. Kin-work or kin-keeping is the work that is performed to maintain relationships between extended kin.  Kin-keeping is vital to the stability and maintenance of family life.  While the definition that follows is admittedly a Western conception of kin-keeping, kin-keeping can relate to sending notes, remembering birthdays, sending cards and gifts, calling family members on birthdays and holidays, sending invitations, sending thank you cards, and sharing/sending photographs.  Facebook has features that allow members to engage in all the activities associated with kin-keeping. These features in Facebook may have utility for American families.  In addition to these affordances, this article also probes the ways in which Facebook can foster conflict between family members when used as a mode of surveillance.  Interestingly, in spite of Facebook’s kin-keeping affordances, conflict often still persists between family members.  Thus, this study aims to explore multiple uses of Facebook by families.

Context Collapse

Social networking sites (SNS) are valuable to our society because they foster what Dana Boyd calls networked publics.  They create technologically mediated publics that shape the environment in which people communicate, and this in turn shapes users’ interactions with one another.  Boyd, among others, has also written about context collapse.  SNSs, such as Facebook, collapse multiple audiences into one context.  Family members, friends, co-workers, etc., despite their different relationships to the user, are all collapsed into one context.  Therefore, when examining the ways Facebook assists in kin-keeping and communication, noting that this communication occurs within a collapsed context is important. Thus, an objective in this article is to highlight both the benefits and drawbacks of context collapse; family members’ interactions in the collapsed context of Facebook create opportunities to forge and maintain meaningful ties between family members, but also can disrupt those ties, as conflict often emerges surrounding issues of privacy in this networked environment.

Kin-keeping and Online Communication

Facebook is a useful medium for the modern family.  81.4% of respondents agree with the statement “Facebook makes it easier to keep in touch with family.”  Another 56.1% of respondents agree that “Facebook is more convenient than using the phone to maintain family relationships.” Only one respondent reports having no family members on Facebook.  Respondents otherwise report having family members on Facebook who include immediate family—such as parents, children, brothers, sisters, and grandparents—and  extended family members—such as great-great grand nieces, and cousins. or As several respondents say, “all of my family is on Facebook.”  When asked how often they use Facebook to interact (post on timelines, instant chat, send a personal message, etc.) and contact family members, 15.6% (45) say every day, 32.2% (93) say frequently, 37.7% (109) say occasionally, and 10.7% (31) say almost never.  Only 3.8% (11) say they never use Facebook to contact or interact with family.

Introducing the Networked Family

SNSs such as Facebook help facilitate the growth of what I will call networked families.  Increasingly, family interaction, communication, and various forms of kin-keeping are mediated by technology. Given these new networked vehicles for “doing family,” Facebook is a propitious tool for communication and contributes to effective kin-keeping.

Analysis of the survey data reveals five primary benefits of Facebook for families. 1) Facebook makes connecting with family easier. 2) Facebook makes connecting with family members who reside far from one another easier and more cost efficient. 3) Individuals use Facebook to locate relatives they had never met and to build new family relationships. 4) Family members’ interactions increase as a result of using Facebook; respondents report an increase in the frequency of communication.  5) Family members’ relationships have become closer as a result of increased communication and interaction on Facebook.

First, Facebook makes maintaining kinship systems easier and among the people surveyed, was preferred to telephone communications.  Lisa says, “It is easier to keep in touch with them and stay informed of things. Its [sic] better than the telephone because you can talk to more at once.” Facebook allows its users to send messages to multiple people at once.  Ergo, as the respondent above suggests, by hitting the “reply all” option, you can talk to multiple family members at the same time.  Given that this communication occurs within a collapsed context, respondents expressed initial skepticism about using Facebook until many realized its benefits for their familial relationships. Mark says, “I was hesitant to add family members on Facebook at first, but I’ve grown to enjoy it.  I’m not very good at keeping in touch with family, so I feel like if I’ve posted in on Facebook, I’ve done enough.” In addition, the fact that Facebook allows members to upload photographs is a popular response among respondents. One can vividly follow developments in the lives of family members.  If you missed your cousin’s wedding or have not seen your brother’s children in a year, you can still view these people and happenings. Respondents report that by viewing photographs on Facebook, they no longer feel estranged from these events and from each other.  Mary notes, “I enjoy [Facebook] because we live far apart, and we are able to keep in touch easier.  And being able to post photos to see is great.  It makes it easy to enjoy special moments when you can’t be there in person yourself.”

Connecting families across geographic distances is the secondary primary benefit of Facebook.  Facebook is a globally free website; it is a cost-effective means by which families with members in different regions of the United States and different countries around the world can maintain kinship. Roger says, “My family is spread all over the western U.S.; Facebook helps us keep in touch and lets us see how the family is growing.  My wife’s entire family is still in South Africa, and so we are on Facebook with them constantly.” And Veronica too notes, “Love having them there, many are overseas & time difference allows for contact on my schedule, also allows me to catch up on not so important news that we’d not waste time talking about on an $$$ overseas call.”  Many state that Facebook provides a free alterative to expensive phone calls.  These affordances go even further.

Third, Facebook has been responsible for helping long-lost family members reunite.  This is the case for a woman from North Carolina who found cousins she had never met.  Likewise, other respondents such as Kenya say, “I do not think people truly understand the value of Facebook and how it has changed people [sic] lives.  I found a long lost sister that I had not seen [sic] over 30 years and now because of Fb you can’t keep us apart.” Another mother shares that Facebook “enabled me to find two of my sons I hadn’t seen in 30 years.”  Thus, Facebook can help to reunite families.  Respondents continue to report the benefits of their new networked family lives.

Fourth, for those sampled here, Facebook increases the frequency of family interaction.  Respondents indicate that prior to their use of Facebook that their interactions with family were minimal, generally restricted to holidays.  For example, Melissa says, “It makes it easy to talk to someone I would otherwise only see at Christmas (therefore once a year).” Martha too notes that “I like it a lot.  I do not like talking on the phone much, so the only times I would talk to or communicate with many family members (aside from my parents and sibling) would be around the holidays when we made the drive to visit.” Facebook then may increase the frequency with which one interacts with extended kin.

Finally, Facebook helps make family members feel closer to one another.  Respondents repeatedly make statements such as:  “It has made me feel a lot more closer [sic] to my family.” Many participants say that because of the increase in frequency with which they now interact with family members, they share more information and know more about one another.  Ergo, they feel closer or have more meaningful bonds with family members.  Another two women note, “I enjoy it; we share more and talk more,” and “It keeps us close and connected interactively.”  By sharing more and talking more, Facebook can make many family members feel closer to one another.  The experiences in this small sample suggest that the copious affordances of networked family life, while ostensibly obvious, are important for studies of networked publics because they reveal the positive benefits of networked family lives, even in a collapsed context.

Parental Perspectives

While Facebook helps to promote solidarity and effective communication between all family members, it also may have important uses for parents.  Many parents in the study note that Facebook is now a primary way in which they learn more about their children’s lives.  From their perspective, Facebook is an opportune parenting tool that is often used to preempt conflict.  For example, Richard tells me, “I can see what my daughter sees as important in her world that she may not discuss with me.”  Interestingly, this father indicates that Facebook is not a means by which to spy on his daughter, but rather to learn what’s important to her.  Facebook can be an educational tool for older generations of parents who feel disconnected from their children’s generation.  They can see what games young people play (e.g. Candy Crush), the language they use to communicate (e.g. use of emoji), the music they like, and other important aspects of youth culture.   For parents and grandparents, this cultural knowledge is important for maintaining healthy relationships with their progeny, and Facebook enhances their access to this cultural capital.

While some parents see Facebook as a form of education and/or a communication tool, other parents see Facebook as an effective means of surveillance (an issue I will return to later).  Some parents are open in their responses to me about using Facebook to monitor who their children’s friends are. Rachel told me that Facebook allows her to “keep tabs on who my children are socializing with.” Many parents report using Facebook to secretively monitor their children’s ostensibly suspicious behaviors.  For example, if children tell their parents they are attending a study group at a friend’s house, but then pictures surface of them at a different place, the parents then have evidence of the child’s duplicitous behavior.  Now, while many users have begun to master and use privacy settings to control what information they share and with whom, the strategies developed to manage self-presentation are complex for some users, and thus, many users are still in the process of mastering these tactics.  In this study, many respondents, particularly older users, were not aware of how to manage privacy settings.  On Facebook, pictures are time stamped when uploaded; likewise, comments are time stamped as they are posted.  Moreover, these posts can also display a location, again, if one has not managed his or her privacy settings.  Facebook users often “check themselves in” at public venues; this feature allows you to post information about your exact location.  These features are used by parents in the sample to discover and expose dishonesty, particularly when their children had not engaged many of their privacy settings.

As a result of parental use of Facebook for surveillance, groups such as: “Parents Don’t Belong on Facebook,” “No parents on Facebook,” “There should be an age limit on Facebook, no parents!,” and “Parents shouldn’t be on Facebook especially when they try to act cool” have emerged on the networking site.  As older generations log on, some younger generations are turned off.

Facebook Fights

Interaction and kin-keeping performed in a collapsed context lead many people in this study to report concern about privacy; this is particularly true for younger users.  66.8% of respondents answer that they are cautious about what they post on Facebook because of family members’ presence on the site.  Crucially, Facebook may be the source of schisms between family members because depending on how it is harnessed, Facebook can be used to monitor family members’ behaviors and, therefore, be seen as an invasion of privacy. Respondents were asked if they liked having family on Facebook.  Maria reports that “I think it [Facebook] causes problems because your family starts finding out things about you from your friends that they did not know about you and they get mad at you; like for example, they might not like that you had a wild night out at the bar with friends.” On Facebook, other users can “tag” members in the photographs that they post.  Therefore, if an individual user, who has not engaged his or her privacy settings, becomes intoxicated at a party and a friend takes pictures of the user’s intoxicated behavior and posts them on Facebook, family members could gain unwanted insight into the user’s social life.

The data demonstrates that what individuals post on their Facebook pages can cause conflict amongst family members.  Ramon tells me he feels that “Sometimes dirty laundry is aired, and I have had several disagreements about it.” Lidia says that she has been involved in multiple disputes with family members because, under the “info” section of her page, she has her religious affiliation marked as atheist.  Carol is upset that she no longer talks to her sister in Arizona because of “nasty” remarks her sister posted on her daughter’s Facebook page (in response to posts and pictures the sister saw as inappropriate).  The content of individual’s profile pages can cause conflict between family members. Jeanne tells me she “was angry with [her] husband when he posted that we were pregnant before [she] had a chance to tell everyone [she] wanted to tell [herself], and they found out on Facebook.   That caused an argument over how much personal information he shares on Facebook.” Most respondents express concern over the amount and type of “personal” and “private” information that is shared publicly on the site.

The Networked Family, Context Collapse, and Coveillance

SNSs such as Facebook have facilitated the growth of what I have been calling networked families.  Increasingly, family interaction, communication, and various forms of kin-keeping are mediated by technology.   Within this new environment, Facebook creates many benefits for networked families.  However, these affordances are complicated by the collapsed contexts in which the communication takes place.  Previous research shows that in collapsed contexts, users of SNSs often employ a lowest common denominator effect; they disclose only information that would be appropriate for all audiences, such as an individual’s grandmother.  Other studies show that users harness technological tools, namely their privacy settings to create custom audiences with which to share information.  This study adds to this literature in two ways.  First, much of the existing literature focuses broadly on SNS use in collapsed contexts; whereas, this study aims to specifically probe the use of one SNS by networked families in collapsed contexts.  Second, scholars such as Dana Boyd have previously noted that functioning within a networked public, broadly, can have benefits and also create conflict.  Here, we learn that this argument can extend to networked families.   This study, too, demonstrates that a networked family can have numerous benefits but can also create conflict.

According to the philosopher Michel Foucault, modern society is a site of incessant surveillance.  This surveillance—this fear—that someone is watching and that the person will, in turn, qualify, label, and punish us—guides our behavior.  This fear is what buttresses individuals’ adherence to social mores and coerces people into conformity.  While Foucault’s work is instructive for considering the importance of surveillance in modern society, Facebook is not actually panoptic in the Foucauldian sense.  On Facebook, an omnipresent fear of visibility  does not affect users’ behaviors, but instead an actual perpetual visibility exists.  Moreover, panoptics relates to an authority potentially watching subordinates.  Here, surveillance is not occurring top-down.  Instead, a specific form of surveillance called coveillance influences networked families.

Barry Wellman has written extensively about the importance of coveillance.  Increasingly, the fear of potentially being policed by an institutionalized authority is not what guides our online behavior, but SNSs such as Facebook create a unique visibility that allows for incessant surveillance by our peers.  Family members constantly read one another’s status updates, check their timelines and posts, and look through photographs.  People who have family members on Facebook know that their mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and so on are watching them.  Thus for networked families, their acknowledgment of this coviellanceleads them to police their own online behavior.  What pictures can I post?  Can I post what I am really feeling?  Can I tag my friends? Do I want my family to know who all my friends are?  Do I want them to know all about my lifestyle?  Most importantly, will they judge me if I post this?  The initial data regarding the benefits of Facebook for use in kin-keeping are complicated by these questions. In a collapsed context, despite the savvy use of privacy settings, managing one’s life on Facebook can be complicated.  While Facebook now allows users to create custom audiences with whom to share different posts, those who are either less savvy or not well-informed are still left worrying about conflict that might arise by sharing information in this collapsed context.

Respondents say that Facebook is a convenient method to share their lives with family members.  So, as Mark notes in the opening of this article, people may ultimately enjoy having family on Facebook; however, if people like Mark are hesitant to add family members or are admittedly cautious about what they post and limit what they share as a result, to what degree does this furtive behavior limit the ability family members have to actually share in one another’s lives?  Coveillance does not completely diminish the affordances of Facebook for kin-keeping, but it clearly complicates dynamics for the networked family.

 

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