May 5, 2010

The Facebook mystery

Our neighbor Lorraine Collins always has an interesting perspective on a wide range of topics. Here's another that should catch your interest -- and perhaps spur a comment or two. Her commentaries appear regularly in the Black Hills Pioneer, and she graciously allows us to share them with on-line readers here.

I heard a rather curious bit of news on the radio the other day. South Dakota ranks number one in the nation for the percentage of our population on Facebook. It seems that 31% of us subscribe to this social networking site on the Internet. Whenever I come across statistics about South Dakota I always try to figure out what they mean, but I confess this one has had me baffled.

Why would a higher percentage of South Dakotans subscribe to Facebook than people in the other 49 states? Are we more technologically savvy, or just more lonesome and isolated, more desperate for human contact? When somebody invites us to be a "friend" on Facebook, do we eagerly jump at the chance because we don't have enough human contact in our villages and farms and suburbs?

Maybe we just have more spare time than other folks do. For instance, a couple of years ago when I found some statistics about life in South Dakota, I discovered that no matter how economically disadvantaged we are, on the average it takes us only 16 minutes to get from home to work. Just compare that with the commutes of folks in any city in America! They may earn a lot more money than we do, but we don't have to spend so much time on the road to get to the job to earn it. So we have more time for cyber-socialization on Facebook.

Another possibility is that South Dakotans are used to small town life, and in a sense, Facebook provides the same sort of experience. At least that's the theory of a writer named Whitney Carpenter writing in an online magazine called Bygone Bureau. She says, "Social networking is roping our personal worlds---all of our acquaintances spread across our lifetime and the globe--into one...small town." She claims that everyone on Facebook is the equivalent of the small town busybody peering through blinds to see what's going on in the neighborhood.

Well, it's a theory. I admit I have a Facebook page, though I'm not sure why, except that some friends urged me to join so I could see the photographs they post there, and that has been a nice benefit. And, in fact, a woman who was my roommate for a semester my freshman year in college contacted me via Facebook. I hadn't heard from her, or thought of her, in half a century but suddenly we were in contact. I'm not sure how that happened, but it's been mildly interesting to send brief messages back and forth and to see some recent photos of her.

Of course, we're never going to have serious, heart-to-heart talks on Facebook, but that's not what the site is for. I guess it's for keeping track of acquaintances and staying in touch, the way we do when we wave at our neighbors as we drive by, or stop to chat a minute when we meet them in the supermarket. We enjoy these pleasant encounters, but we don't expect them to replace meaningful conversation. We still need substantive relationships with people and social networking will never replace real friendship. Facebook is a means of sharing things, but only things we're willing to share with everybody.

Searching for a clue about why 31% of people in South Dakota use Facebook, I did find one other fact that might help explain our high ranking. It seems that although two thirds of Facebook subscribers are under 35, the fastest growing demographic among subscribers is made up of women over 55. I think there are a whole lot of us in that demographic in South Dakota.

Well, this may be a possible explanation, but a friend of mine had another idea. When I asked her what she thought might explain our high usage of Facebook, she laughed and said, "It's because we haven't yet figured out how to use Twitter."

Sometimes the simplest answers are the best.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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