Since the earliest days of Facebook, social scientists have sent up warnings saying that the ability to maintain separate "contexts" (where you reveal different aspects of yourself to different people) was key to creating and maintaining meaningful relationships, but Mark Zuckerberg ignored this advice, insisting that everyone be identified only by their real names and present a single identity to everyone in their lives, because anything else was "two-faced."
Zuck was following in the footsteps of other social network entrepreneurs who attempted to impose their own theories of social interaction on mass audiences — danah boyd has written and presented extensively on the user rebellions of Friendster from people who wanted to form interest-based affinity groups and use pseudonymous identities for different activities, which Friendster rejected out of a mix of commercial concerns (it wanted users to arrange their social affairs to make it easier to monetize them) and fringe theories of social interaction.
But while all the other social networks collapsed, Facebook thrived, and imposed the Zuckerberg model of "one identity, one context" on billions of users, who, research consistently finds, are made unhappy and angry by their use of the service, but are nevertheless psychologically compelled to continue using it, creating a vicious feedback loop that even Zuck has acknowledged as a risk to his business.
In 2008, I found myself speaking with the big boss himself, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. I was in the second year of my Ph.D. research on Facebook at Curtin University. And I had questions.
Why did Facebook make everyone be the same for all of their contacts? Was Facebook going to add features that would make managing this easier?
To my surprise, Zuckerberg told me that he had designed the site to be that way on purpose. And, he added, it was "lying" to behave differently in different social situations.
Up until this point, I had assumed Facebook's socially awkward design was unintentional. It was simply the result of computer nerds designing for the rest of humanity, without realising it was not how people actually want to interact.
The realisation that Facebook's context collapse was intentional not only changed the whole direction of my research but provides the key to understanding why Facebook may not be so great for your mental health.
The secret history of Facebook depression [Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie/Particle]
(Image: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY)