Sunday, December 16, 2007

A 31-year-old's defense of Facebook

Michael Gerson attacked Facebook in an op-ed because
But there are some things about the Internet culture -- its attack on modesty, its complication of true intimacy, its reward for shallowness -- that should be unsettling to any conservative. Or anyone who wants their children to know an undiluted friendship.
and the USA Today ran an article saying, "Teens to parents: It's our Facebook"

Yet, they are both wrong! Exceedingly wrong.

In September, I joined Facebook. I did it because I thought it could be useful in the classroom. I was wrong. Facebook is the wrong tool to teach History.

Facebook is, however, one of the most useful and enjoyable websites on the internet. For those unfamiliar with Facebook (or think it is only for teenagers), Facebook is a "Web 2.0" application. The website has a very simple interface that allows even the most novice web user to immediately have a space and some ownership. All the content on Facebook is user generated. The web site owners produce no content for users to read, buy or respond to (unlike or What do users "generate" exactly?

A "profile", or a simple web page about yourself. It is mostly the mundane details of your life, but the mundaneness is exactly what we care about. Users put up pictures of parties, vacations, family members, friends and special events. They write on their friends' "walls" little notes ranging from notes of love to angry retorts. Users update their "status" so friends can keep up with them. Right now I have friends that are "in Iowa with the Governor" and "sleeping" and "dreaming of a White Christmas". Some users have created little applications so I can "superpoke" my friends. One of my favorite Superpoke options is the ability to "throw a sheep" at my friends. Where in real life can you throw a sheep at a friend as an act of love? One of my friends high-fived me yesterday as his superpoke. I got caught under the mistletoe with my wife a few days back.

If you aren't interested in Superpokin' your friends, other applications are available. Mrs. Expat Teacher plays Scrabble with a half dozen of her friends simultaneously. I challenge my friends to a World Geography game. Detlef and I are neck and neck, but I'm still ahead. And I like the bragging rights.

One's profile can have as little or as much as you'd like to disclose. I've listed my favorite books, music, and quotes. I have my e-mail, phone number and AIM ID. I know this scares many folks, but each user can set limits on who can view your profile. Most users only allow their "friends" to view their profile. Since you control who is your friend, you control who can see your info. On my own profile, I have added little applications that declare my political affiliations and shows which countries I've visited. I've joined groups of people with a common interest such as "America for Richardson", "Out of Iraq now!", and "Forget Starbucks, I get my coffee from Ebenezer's". I declared my alma mater and year of graduation. All of this information allows me to find folks with common interests or experiences. I have become friends with many people in the Richardson campaign, which I hope will pay off with future work in politics. One of my offline friends, has turned her Facebook work into a paying gig through this sort of networking.

All of this leads to the most addicting function of Facebook. That ability to keep in touch with friends and find old friends. For Mrs. Expat Teacher and myself, we've lived in 4 different cities in 8 years and have friends spread throughout the globe. I have located friends from high school, college, London and around the corner. My sophomore year, I lived with 7 other guys. We lost touch as life happened, but through Facebook, I've been able to catch up with 4 of the guys in the last 3 months. We were good friends, but I didn't know that one married and moved to Thailand. Another has 2 children already. A third has taken over his father's business and is doing very well financially. It has been great to catch up with these guys. They were interested in my international travel and I was excited to hear about their lives. Without Facebook, we probably wouldn't have ever found each other. Now relationships that I built with good people don't have to end when one of us moves.

I hope to find the remaining 3 over the next year. Because of the networking effect, if ANY of those 4 guys I've already "friended" finds the missing roommates, I'll know and be able to catch up with them. I have about 110 Facebook friends and can follow their lives in ways I couldn't before. Sure, some would send out a mass e-mail once in a while or an annual Christmas card, but it only hit the highlights. Life is made up of more than just vacations and job changes. It is about the small events of life. Take today, for example.

When one logs into Facebook, the first screen is your "newsfeed" or a list of all the things that your friends have been doing. My newsfeed today included one friend uploading pictures to an online album she called "Christmas Party", another friend is attending an event called "Schools out!", I learned that another friend is upset with the Des Moines Register and a fourth is "traveling to Ohio"

What can I do with that information? I can follow the lives of four friends that I would have missed otherwise. I went and looked at the photo album and commented on a photo. I passed over the "School out!" event, but went to my buddy's wall and agreed with him about the Des Moines Register. I've stored the information about Ohio in my head, so when I see my fourth buddy, who I didn't know was going to Ohio, I'll ask about his trip.

Think of it like a Christmas letter year round. You can get all the highlights of all your friend's life whenever you log in. Would you reject your friend's Christmas letters? Of course not! So unlike Gerson, who doesn't understand Facebook at all, Facebook is an excellent way to keep up intimacy and depth of relationships.

If you aren't a member of Facebook, I highly recommend it. Go there and walk through the signup process. Depending on what you want to have in your profile (and you can edit it later), it will take between 5 and 20 minutes. It will even find friends for you that are already on Facebook, so you can start to catch up with them immediately.

Let's be friends!