Friday, February 27, 2009

Facebook Primer

(News-Herald, Feb 26) Facebook turned five years old this month. If you aren’t sure why you should care, this column is for you.
Facebook started out as a simple college project. Colleges have long collected high school pictures from incoming freshmen and slapped them together into a book that newly arrived students could use to answer burning questions like “Who is that hot girl in my chem. Class?” One young whiz realized that this was a perfect task to feed to a computer. At first the site was used by a few colleges and allowed only students and family. Then it opened the doors to the world, and now facebook is the pre-eminent social site on the net.
Is that successful? Well, the creator of facebook has reportedly been offered as much as a billion dollars for his slice of website heaven. Clearly some folks are impressed.
There are two fundamental differences between facebook and the previous cybersocial champ, myspace.
The first is that myspace is ugly. It’s messy ugly, as if a five-year-old threw some neon paint, glitter and monkey innards in a blender, hit puree, and tossed the results at a computer screen.
The second and probably more important difference is that myspace was designed to let you make new friends with a bunch of total strangers. Facebook is designed to let you stay in touch with people you already know, and that removes a whole layer of stalkery weirdness that myspace includes.
But what do you actually DO there?
Facebook lets you stay in contact with people. It lets you know what they’re up to, and it lets you tell the world what you’re up to, all in whatever level of detail you prefer. You write updates; all your friends read at will.
For instance. Charlie and I don’t talk all that often. But I knew when Charlie’s divorce was final and also when he started dating again, as did all of his facebook friends.
I also knew when Mark was getting over a cold, when Beth was having trouble sleeping, how Julie’s writing project is going, the time and date of Rick and Deb’s choral concert, and where George and Melissa live now.
I know what my old college friend’s kids look like, not in the one stiff portrait at Christmas way, but in the dozens of photos in the family album way.
Facebook provides, basically, the same sort of surface intimacy and steady detail that you get from living or working next door to someone.
For families this can be great. My daughter is an awesome photo queen who greets each occasion with camera in hand. There are thousands and thousands of her pictures on her facebook pages, and I can look at them any time I want to and leave comments. My son has an exceptional skill at locating online clips and sites, all of which he can share with me through facebook. I can look at them, send some back, and it’s like we’re sitting and surfing together. And none of this daily sharing has to be affected by the three hour time difference between us.
Find this kind of transparency more scary than heartwarming? Your facebook only includes what you put there, only shows what you want to be shown, and you have complete control over who your facebook friends are.
There are always caveats. The smart user assumes that anything on the internet is forever, and facebook is no different. And while you may be wisely discrete, there’s no controlling your friends. One of my former students has a facebook group started by her college friends for everyone who was ever a victim of her projectile vomiting.
Though indiscrete collegians still abound, we oldsters are the fastest growing part of the site’s boom (though in odd patterns—my college class shows almost 100 facebookers, but my high school class shows two—counting me). It’s easy to read, easy to understand, and there’s neither special freakish jargon nor bizarre social customs to learn. You don’t have to bare your soul and you certainly don’t have to use any of the extra bells and whistles and games that are available.
Those on dial-up are at a disadvantage (again). But this is an easy way to stay in touch with old friends, far-away family, and people you just generally don’t want to lose track of. Maybe it’s lazy, but I see nothing wrong with an easy way to make the world a little smaller, to give us all a few more close neighbors.

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