Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships

There’s some possibly bogus research about “How your cell phone wrecks your relationships — even when you’re not using it.” I say “possibly bogus” because these kinds of social science studies are notoriously unreliable and unreproducible.* Nonetheless, this one reinforces some of my pre-existing biases and is congruent with things that I’ve observed in my own life and the lives of friends, so I’m going to not be too skeptical of its premises and will instead jump into uninformed speculation.

It seems like cell phones and Facebook cordon a large part of your life from your significant other (assuming you have one or aspire to have one) and encourage benign-seeming secrecy in that other part of your life. In the “old days,” developing friendships or quasi-friendships with new people required face-to-face time, or talking on the phone (which, at home, was easily enough overheard) or writing letters (which are slow, a lot of people aren’t very good at it or don’t like to write letters). Now, you can be developing new relationships with other people while your significant other is in the same room, and the significant other won’t know about the relationship happening via text message. You can also solicit instant attention, especially by posting provocative pictures or insinuating song lyrics, while simultaneously lying to yourself about what you’re doing in a way that would be much harder without Facebook and cell phones.

Those new relationships start out innocently, only to evolve, out of sight, into something more. Another dubious study made the rounds of the Internet a couple months ago, claiming that Facebook was mentioned in a third of British divorce petitions. Now, it’s hard to distinguish correlation from causation here—people with bad relationships might be more attached to their phones and Facebook profiles—but it does seem like Facebook and cellphones enable behavior that would have been much more difficult before they became ubiquitous.

I don’t wish to pine for a mythical golden age, which never existed anyway. But it is striking, how many of my friends’ and peers’ relationships seem to founder on the shoals of technology. Technology seems to be enabling a bunch of behaviors that undermine real relationships, and, if so, then some forms of technology might be pushing us towards shorter, faster relationships; it might also be encouraging us to simply hop into the next boat if we’re having trouble, rather than trying to right the boat we’re already in. Facebook also seems to encourage a “perpetual past,” by letting people from the past instantly and quietly “re-connect.” Sometimes this is good. Sometimes less so. How many married people want their husband or wife chatting again with a high school first love? With a summer college flame? With a co-worker discussing intimate details of her own failing relationship?

Perhaps relationship norms will evolve to discourage the use of online media (“Are we serious enough to de-active each other’s Facebook accounts?” If the answer is “no,” then we’re not serious and, if I’m looking for something serious, I should move on). Incidentally, I don’t think blogs have the same kind of effect; this blog, for instance, is reasonably popular by the standards of occasional bloggers, and has generated a non-zero number of groupies, but the overall anonymity of readers (and the kind of content I tend to post) in relation to me probably put a damper on the kinds of relationship problems that may plague Facebook and cell phones.

EDIT: See also “I’m cheating on you right now: An admiring like on your Facebook page. A flirty late-night text. All while my partner’s right there next to me” mentions, unsurprisingly:

A study in 2013 at the University of Missouri surveyed 205 Facebook users aged 18–82 and found that “a high level of Facebook usage is associated with negative relationship outcomes” such as “breakup/divorce, emotional cheating, and physical cheating.”

Again, I want to maintain some skepticism and am curious about studies that don’t find a difference and thus aren’t published. But some research does match my own anecdotal impressions.

* If you’d like to read more, “Scientific Utopia: II – Restructuring Incentives and Practices to Promote Truth Over Publishability” is a good place to start, though it will strike horror in the epistemologist in you. Or, alternately, as Clay Shirky points out in “The Cognitive Surplus, “[…] our behavior contributes to an environment that encourages some opportunities and hinders others.” In the case of cell phones and Facebook, I think the kinds of behaviors encouraged are pretty obvious.

Will we ever find out what happened to Flip Video?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Cisco Killed The Flip Cam A Day Before It Was Going To Get A Cool New Live Broadcast Feature.” Which is pretty frustrating: why kill the unit right before a major upgrade that’s presumably all sunk costs? The WSJ has one possible answer in “After Cisco Sacrifices His Baby to the Gods of Wall Street, Flip Founder Jon Kaplan Speaks!“, where Kara Swisher says that axing Flip was an “effort to assure Wall Street that it was no longer serious about its wacky foray into the consumer market.” But does it have to be so public? So symbolic?

And it is symbolic: Arik Hesseldahl points out that Cisco lumps the revenue from Flip into an “other” category on its financial statements. He then goes on: “This ‘other revenue’ totaled $2.6 billion in Cisco’s fiscal 2010, up from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2009. The biggest single factor for that billion-dollar boost was $317 million in Flip camera sales. You read that right: Cisco just shut down a business that brought in $317 million in sales in its last fiscal year.”

He says, “Make no mistake, the Flip was and is a culturally significant product.” It was, and, as regular readers know, I almost never write about consumer gadgets because most of the time there’s no point and people who write about them are just wasting their breath. But the Flip was fun in that shocking, surprising way that the original iPods were. Gadgets rarely have that effect—they’re as rare, or maybe rarer, as a book that really speaks to me. But a book is forever while gadgets come and go.

I think it’s the pointlessness of closing Flip that annoys me so much. They made a fun product that a corporate leviathan is killing just because it can. Unfortunately, posts like this one aren’t likely to have much of an effect. There’s a Facebook page devoted to saving Flip, but it only has 407 members as of this writing, and, in Cisco terms, that’s indistinguishable from zero.

Still, David Pogue’s post “The Tragic Death of the Flip” has 13 pages of comments, most from people with the same reaction I did. Killing a beloved product is counterproductive, considering how hard it is to develop and sell a beloved product, and I still wonder why Cisco axed instead of sold the company. A hundred million dollars is presumably better than zero. But I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

EDIT: Some feedback points out that still-video hybrid cameras like Panasonic’s will likely take over Flip’s market. Could be, but I think the two serve different people. Those Panasonic cameras are a lot more expensive and in key ways less fun to use. I have a Canon camera for pictures and while it’s great for what it is, Flips are more approachable and more portable.

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