MFFB: missing from Facebook

It’s a veritable treasure trove.  I just found a Outlook database created when I was the head of the Institute of Contemporary Culture in Toronto.  It’s large (4000 names) and it’s old (about 16 years old).  It was great to see familiar names, and I thought I would plug some of them into Facebook, the new rolodex of the digital age.

Here’s what’s odd.  Some of the names that loomed large in the Outlook database were not in Facebook.  The Outlook database was created to help the Institute stay in touch with people of influence.  It contains lots of (mostly Canadian) heavy hitters: politicians, captains of industry, heads of cultural institutions, celebrities, journalists, and academics.  This is a list of people who made their way in the world by working their personal networks.  But now they were missing from the new social networks, missing from Facebook (MFFB).

To be sure, some are in Facebook and they are flourishing.  A woman we almost hired as a research assistant is now the executive producer of a reality TV program in LA.  Others were present and closer than I could have guessed.  A family that used to live just down the road from me in Toronto now lives just up the road from me in Connecticut.  Happy surprises, both. 

And sometimes, it’s just hard to tell.  The data are unforthcoming.  You know, when we find a name on Facebook, and that’s all we find.  There’s no other information.  And no friends.  And we can guess what happened.  Someone heard about Facebook, signed up, couldn’t quite get the hang of it, and gave up.  Their Facebook page is now a kind of ghost ship, a tiny advertisement of their failure to make the transition to the digital age.  (Let’s hope your name is “Andy Smith.”  That name floating in Facebook could belong to anyone of hundreds of people.  Not so good if your name is “Grant McCracken.”  No where to hide there, really.)

Or maybe they are MFFB (missing from Facebook) on purpose.  Maybe, they don’t believe in Facebook.  They don’t believe in social networking in the digital age.  It is possible for intelligent people to take this position.  Recently I heard four people at a big time advertising age try to persuade me that Facebook is really just for kids, that it’s a passing fancy, that not very far from now it will disappear from fashion.  Their position: Ignore Facebook.  It will go away.

I can’t tell you how embarrassing this is for an anthropologist to listen to.  I have done the research, and this much is clear.  Facebook is here to stay.  It has changed selfhood and the social world permanently.  (One example: millennials are hard to manage these days because the social network has replaced the corporation has their primary “safety net.”  Now that they have Facebook, a job at a big corporation matters much less.)  Facebook has changed the structural properties of our culture.  We can ignore it.  It will not go away.

Maybe some of these MFFBs are then like Jacques Brel, that French singer who would not come to America till it had vacated Vietnam.  They’re making a statement!  If so, I have bad news.  The statement is “I have retired from the world.  I’m done.  Talk amongst yourselves.”  And this from movers and shakers.  How odd.

Is there a generational divide here?  And yes, Don Tapscott has been telling us for sometime now that these “digerati” are different from you and me.  They have more data.  And we have long suspected that Gen Y might even have different neurological wiring, the necessary consequence of monitoring all those data streams at once.

But the group that concerns me is on the other side of the generational divide.  Have Boomers so drifted out of orbit that even power players are MFFB?  Can someone make him/herself a vivid presence in the social, political and or culture world and go missing here?  Can you be a thought leader or a culture creative and not be on Facebook?  The answer to these questions is probably “no.”  Which is to say, some boomers have pushed themselves into voluntary exile.  And, yes, we expect some people in every generation to “age out” of contemporary culture.  But power players?

This may be a metric of generational fatigue.  It could be the face of generational ennui.  Perhaps after all is said and done, Boomers will prove to be a generation that will end not with a, er, boom, but a whimper.  Please, I’m begging you.  If you don’t have a Facebook account, get one now, and make me your friend.  You never know when you can help me run an Institute.

14 thoughts on “MFFB: missing from Facebook

  1. Miriam

    Have you checked on other social networking sites (LinkedIn, etc)? Facebook is quite sophisticated in the privacy and channel management tools it avails to its users. It is possible (*shrug*, don’t know how likely) that some of your heavy hitters are on Facebook, but are using it in other modes besides professional promotion and identity integration. Low-key. Incognito. Unsearchable. What if they don’t want you to find them THERE?

    I say this as a young person who recently performed the fine-tuning on such a tricked-out Facebook installation for her Boomer mother. I’m also a young person who spurns professional networking on Facebook: the place where one flings cows and beers at one’s friends is not where I want to trade business cards. There are other, much better plains of the social web for that.

    How does this analysis measure up to the rapid “graying” of Facebook? I can’t speak for your former colleagues by any means, but methinks there are a few other dynamics besides “generational ennui.”

  2. amosbray

    @Miriam: your comments remind me, in part, of my own attitude toward MySpace some years ago (and truth be told, still): a place where I wouldn’t do x (for x substitute whatever “serious” intention you like) because that’s just not a place where you do that. As a musician, I put up a site there but more out of duty than anything approaching enthusiasm. There were add’l reasons for my tepidity, but let’s just say I understand in part your angle toward Facebook, though I do not share it. Facebook (and Twitter), in contrast to something like MySpace, has built and is building tools that make it for me big enough and generic enough, or genre-swallowing enough, to encompass funny, stupid, serious, biz, light, heavy. Some of this is aesthetic, I must admit. Facebook is more like a well designed building and MySpace is more like a graffitoed shantytown. Further, some of my inclination is toward fewer webvilles and webapps rather than more specialization, especially when it comes to anything like social media. (I’m not this way in other aspects of technology.) For me it would be akin to having to own 3 or 4 telephone books for my town. (Oh Mildred isn’t in this one, maybe she’s in this one? No. OK, she’s got to be in here, no? Impossible! Where the hell is Mildred?!) Social media should be as encompassing as possible. I do not happen to like LinkedIn. In fact I hate it. Perhaps precisely because it does what FB refuses to do: for all its tentacles, it narrowcasts. And I don’t want that in socmed. I don’t predict, but I shouldn’t be surprised if Twitter ends up being the biggest swimming pool of all because it has so many tentacles you can’t even see them, and the barrier to entry is just so tiny, even by Facebook standards.

  3. Charles

    That line about social networks replacing the corporation as the safety net. That’s the sort of awesome one liner I read this blog for. Makes a lot of other things fall into place. Awesome post. You’re on fire.

    As for those ad people who think Facebook is for the young. Don’t they read the papers either?

    What an embarrassment for our business. No wonder some of our clients are dismissive of what we used to do well.

    Fresh thinking.

  4. Arvind Venkataramani

    grant, i usually love your writing, but i’m a little disappointed with this one. i think you may be reflecting the attitudes of your community more than that of the world at large. perhaps those movers and shakers are adequately connected already, and don’t need the massive network potential that facebook provides to do what they do? perhaps they accomplish their goals through their positions of power and a few small key people who they can depend on? or maybe they aren’t on facebook, but enough of their organization is?

    facebook is a rich, energetic, populous space. and that might be precisely why certain people avoid it: because they prefer their modus operandi to be quiet and discreet. to borrow (and misuse) everett hughes’ term: the MFFB folk might be avoiding facebook because they are satanic deviants; they are the hidden movers, the nighttime operators. they want out of the radar. yes, there are advantages to being on facebook: it opens up the sort of dialogue with the public that is hard to have otherwise. but then wanting that comes down to a philosophical position. which might be the opposition you are seeing: not one of disdain, but of intentional separation.

    but all this is hypothetical, and i can give you a real life (and personal) example. i work with a capoeira group. because of the history of the group, and the traditions it upholds, our teacher intentionally keeps the group largely invisible: this is a strategy to only let in the most determined and interested of people. but the vetting process does not stop there: people who don’t agree with the way we do capoeira are subtly encouraged to find another group (there’s more than one school in town). the reasoning is: if you don’t want to learn to do capoeira the way we want to do it, you should really train with someone else. (one can compare this to cult behaviour, but that would be naive).

    this is not to say we don’t manifest ourselves online: we have a web page, and we all talk about our capoeira profusely on facebook and twitter (with pictures and all). but we don’t have a facebook group, and we operate through text messages. (ok, so there’s the occasional facebook email, but that has less to do with the facebook effect and more to do with the fact that we don’t have a mailing list). this puzzled me initially – i’m one of those digerati and i’m fairly active on the major social web systems. but having been in the group for a while i now understand why it doesn’t matter whether we have a facebook page or not, and how it can actually be beneficial in keeping us close-knit by connecting us primarily through the class and the training and the games. it’s the ‘maktub’ philosophy in operation: what will happen, will happen. we are happy to be small, because being big doesn’t matter to us, and might even bring us problems that we are happy to avoid. we let our capoeira bring people to us, and the capoeira is what keeps us together.

    so i think it might be a little presumptuous to talk about facebook as the paradise everyone should be at…

    (this is a poor summary of the complexity of the capoeira problem: there are philosphical orientations that determine what makes our flavour of capoeira worthy of interest, and what kinds of people we’d like to attract. simply put, our performance of identity cannot be held on facebook. i probably should write up a longer post on this – i almost wanted to own the social capital of this immensely long comment and post it on my blog, but surely, i thought, i don’t have to be so greedy! )

  5. botogol

    The seven stages of social networking.

    ignorance… what’s a blog?

    incredulity, derision and willful misunderstanding .. you mean several times a day, short messages, but who on earth cares that you’ve just finished the washing up?

    fear and suspicion… when I was their age we *spoke* to our friends, it can’t be good all this screentime – and these people I heard of: they tweeted they were on holiday and their house was burgled

    unwillingly intrigued… well, apparently she saw it on facebook and so..

    toe in the water… No, I’m only on it to see what the children are doing.

    gentle usage… no, hardly at all, just a few status updates, but, wow, it’s surprising all these old friends that find you, I hadn’t seen her for nearly 20 years and out of nowhere she friended me

    immersion… so, I’ve got my facebook updates going out automatically as tweets, plus on the sidebar of my blog, I’ve got 129 friends, which is too many really, I’m going to start refusing

  6. Suw

    Couple of points – it is perfectly possible to not be on Facebook, or on Facebook and not active, and still be a part of a vibrant web community via other tools. Each tool, whether Twitter, LinkedIn or CyWorld, has its own community and to imply that Facbook is the be all and end all is just plain wrong. Facebook is one tool, and it’s attractive to some people and not to others.

    Secondly, the concept of a generational divide between the ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, as promulgated by Prensky, Tapscott and others is not supported by the evidence. The truth is much more boring – some of the ‘net generation’ do indeed grasp technology very easily, but many more do not have access, are socially excluded from the web, or make a conscious decision to opt out. Papers by Selwyn and Bennett et al both review the evidence and conclude that the concept of a generational divide has more to do with moral panic than it does reality.

    I just wrote a long blog post on the idea of generational digital capability, if you’re interested:

  7. botogol


    I think you are right (and bang on) about the importnace and impact of social networks in general, but not necessarily about FB in particular – it may last it may not.

    FB (and other networks) are very BLUNT tools for managing and communicating with friends. I badly want to stratify my FB friends into family, friends, aquainances, blog readers, colleagues, neighbours and so on. I want to communicate with them in different ways (I don’t want my holiday pictures displayed to my colleauges). I can see how people therefore maintain whacky personas on MS, a sensible one on FB and a business one on LinkedIn. That’s not sustainable. The first network to crack the multiple circles of friends will start to draw ahead.

    alternatively, and perhaps as well, I think we’ll eventually see open networks of networks, so that my persona on linkedin can ‘friend’ and talk to your persona on facebook.

    An interesting post.

  8. allan

    Grant – you mentioned you have done the research that supports the continuation of the Facebook phenom. Can you direct me to that research?

  9. chip

    GM Wrote: (One example: millennials are hard to manage these days because the social network has replaced the corporation has their primary “safety net.” Now that they have Facebook, a job at a big corporation matters much less.)

    Hmmm. I’ve seen a correlation from Yankelovich related to this–people with more of a FB network are less concerned about losing their job. But I’d worry about that implying causation, or that millenials are viewing FB as their safety net. Will their FB “friends” pay them if their corporation fires them? It seems to me that’s a function of youth–in your 20s you do not worry as much about losing a job since you have few responsibilities, and you can always crash on Mom and Dad’s couch. And millenials are by definition younger.

  10. Susan

    I’m with the bits brought together by the various commenters. I think a lot of people have divided digital selves, and I think the divide between digital and non-digital citizens has more to do with class than age – plenty of my young students in the Inland Empire are far behind in computer skills. At the same time, 42 year old me has been immersed in the net since DARPA days and then imagine the mastery my eight year old multi-player gamer son will have when he hits 18, he’s been on computers since he was a toddler. The rich get richer…

    Wired last month had an article on why they think FB will win at the game of syncing these personas across the board:

  11. Talin

    I’m sorry, but after reading this post I have a lot of pent-up rant energy that has to be released.

    I don’t use FB for the simple reason that I am burned out on social networking sites. I was an early adopter of Friendster, Tribes, OKCupid, LinkedIn, and others – and I never got anything useful from any of them. Oh, it was fun for a while building up a social graph of people that I knew – but then that social graph just sat there and did nothing. A mere handful of messages flowed back and forth, compared to hundreds of emails from friends over the same time period. Most of the messages I received from these services is automatic email updates for things that I didn’t care about. Eventually I abandoned these sites because there was nothing for me there.

    When I write, I write essays – I think long and hard about what I want to write, and then take care to write it clearly and completely. I’m not interested in tweets or updates – I really don’t care what you happen to be doing right now, nor have I any interest in anyone else knowing what I am doing. I’m not interested in casual chit-chat, I’d rather hear an argument or a lecture, something from which I can learn new insights about the world.

    When I hear your plea for me to join FB, what I hear is “come on in sucker, and get prepared for another disappointment.”

  12. Patrick Pearce

    Facebook is a key part of the must worse problem of time spent online. Reading about the experiences of our friends, publicizing our own, exchanging about them, will never ever replace the value of experiencing life outside in the real world. Ask anyone to talk about bumping into an old friend or meeting a new acquaintance in a store or a bar and compare that to the same encounter online – the energy, the passion, the vitality of the experience is incomparable. Many of us have (or could have) very full lives seeing our friends and relatives more often in person and keeping touch with a few important ones online. Like many things in the digital age, an increase in quantity has not led to increase of quality, productivity or meaningful results. We only have to ask ourselves, when are (were) we happier, online or off? Facebook may be a valuable network, but the social, sociological, psychological and physiological opportunity costs of time spent on it, as anything online, are fundamental, and potentially devastating for us as living, breathing feeling social human beings.

    As the sources of thoughts multiply exponentially, the value of thought communicated one to one, or through example, increases. A true thought leader doesn’t not need to promote himself in a mass way. His or her influence will always be strongest in person, and their reputation will be spread by others. Would you rather mildly influence a thousand netizens for a day or even a year or two, or profoundly influence your family members, close friends and colleagues for a lifetime? This is not a philosophical debate, this is an operational reality, and I sense that the fact that many chose to stay off Facebook is very evidence of this.

  13. T. Snow

    Coming late to the conversation. I haven’t read your blog in awhile, and I usually enjoy it. But I have to say that this time you’re way off the mark, enough so that I am prompted to respond.

    Your disdain (“How odd”) for MFFBs, and your subsequent ghettoization of the group, by assigning it a term which suggests that those people are somehow delinquent in their obligation to show up for something everyone else is doing, including yourself, is obvious. Your own enthusiasm for social networking has clouded your judgement in being able to appreciate the nuances that may attend an individual’s absence from facebook. Why is it indicative of an “anti” anything stance? Maybe it’s because there are other ways that person wishes to spend their time. Why must it be interpreted as an aggressive act?

    I chose not to list myself in the phonebook, when phonebooks existed. I had nothing against phonebooks, or the people in them, and in fact, I used phonebooks myself from time to time. I just didn’t want to be so accessible.

    Are people who go on retreats, or chose to live off the grid, or in solitude, all society haters? Some of them are, perhaps, but probably a small minority. It would be irresponsible for a social scientist to lump them all into one big, society-hating category. There are many reasons why a person might choose that lifestyle. Different values, for one. Why would you judge them for it, if not because their choice threatened yours in some way?

    You might try to look beyond your own knee-jerk prejudice if you really to understand why some people choose to live a facebook-free life.

    Try this one on for size:

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