In Facebook Thoughts

Time magazine just did a cover story on the Facebook phenomenon. Remember 5 years ago you didn’t know what it was? Now, I learned inTime, Facebook is about to welcome its 500 millionth member. If Facebook was a country, it would have a population bigger than the United States. One in four people who use the internet have logged into their Facebook account in the last 30 days.

All that connectivity is cool – and sometimes worrisome. On the cool side, right around the time of our 20th high school reunion, most of my graduating class spontaneously found one another. Now my old high school friends share pictures of their children and comment on my status, a loose yet intimate way of staying in touch. The moms in my town post about local events and about Board of Ed brouhahas. And I have some business contacts that invite me to some pretty cool things.

On the worrisome side, I recently posted information of a private nature, remembering only that my close girlfriends would read it. I’d forgotten that there were some people who didn’t yet know the news. It wasn’t a big secret, per se, but just something I’d rather only discuss with people close to me. I’d forgotten than with a friends circle in the hundreds, that made the information more public than I intended.

I saw a different take on the Facebook experience when asking a girlfriend why she hadn’t friended me yet. We were hanging out having drinks and she said, “Okay, I’ll do it now.” (Ah, the wonders of iPhones – an essay for another day). “Look in your e-mail now,” she said, “I just friended you.”

I opened up e-mail and saw a Facebook friend invitation pop in.

“Um…” I said, confused. “But that’s not your name.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s my Facebook name.”

“Why the incognito Facebook account?”

“Ugh, if I used my real name too many people would friend me,” she said.

As someone who took to Facebook with the ferocity of a teenager discovering making out, I can’t understand that kind of reticence. Or, at least I couldn’t before. Now, I’m beginning to recognize that the strange mix of anonymity, intimacy and ease of access of information that the internet affords is something I haven’t completely thought through.

I logged out of my Facebook account and Googled to see what a non-friend who was Googling me would see of my profile. (I did this because – gasp! – my 10-year-old daughter informed me she had Googled me in school). Turned out you can find out some of my favorite movies are Before SunriseWuthering Heights and Serendipity (information which clearly identifies me as a romantic sap to any guy thinking of dating me) and that I like to read Victor Frankl and Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall (which would clue anyone in the know that I am brainy and a little dark). Oh, and you also get to see my profile picture, which shows a bit more cleavage than I would prefer a potential employer see. All this information, in the context of sharing it with friends, gives clues about who I am and brings people closer. In the hands of strangers it doesn’t exactly facilitate identity theft, but it feels… a little icky.

I am still skittish about posting too many pictures of my children on Facebook, understanding that once I release them out into the world, they really aren’t only my property anymore. And then there is the maddening practice of having others post photos of you on Facebook. Remember that bad high school hairdo you’d rather forget? Well, now you can’t, because it’s all over Facebook. The most you can do is untag yourself from a photo, making it harder for people to find. But unless it’s obscene or violates FB’s terms of use, it will live forever in Facebook infamy.

According to the Time article, I am not the only user with privacy concerns. In December, Facebook reset users’ privacy settings to a new default, making everyone’s profile as open as possible. Users got into an uproar and scrambled to choose what information could be seen by friends, friends of friends and strangers. And now, following a complaint to the FTC, Facebook is getting ready to unveil enhanced privacy settings.

I do not bite the virtual hand that, if not feeds me, at least caresses me gently. It is a wonderful experience to catch up with what friends are doing in a few keystrokes, or to post these musings here and get such great encouragement. I love Facebook. I still remember the first moment I FINALLY gave in. It was a couple of years ago. I had ignored at least a dozen friend requests because, darn it, I just didn’t want another MySpace (remember them?). But when I logged in and saw the clean white and blue lines filled with friendly people and useful information, I was captivated. Facebook actually has a name for that – the aha! moment – and a secret formula (based on videotapes of users’ reactions and other research) for how many aha! moments a user needs to experience to be hooked.

As with all things internet for my “tween” generation (the generation in between the time when there was no internet and there was), I continue to figure out the nuances. I will keep writing, but I will spare some of the gorier details. And, maybe, when that friend of a friend suggestion pops up, before clicking “accept” I will ask myself: would I mail this person a picture of my kids? If the answer is no, the click will go to the “Ignore” button instead.

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facebook: how much do you need it?