Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lured into the Facebook vortex
July 20, 2007

I try to be discerning in my choice of trends, and certainly didn’t expect to like Facebook. The idea of becoming somebody’s on-line “friend” was just a little too high-school for me.
But the e-mails kept coming, most often from people who I hadn’t heard from in ages. They’d invite me to be their “friend” and post happy little pictures of themselves to lure me in.
The requests piled up unanswered in my inbox. But then my cousin’s wife in Kuwait sent me an invitation. With all that distance between us, it just seemed downright rude to refuse to be her Facebook friend.
And things just kind of went crazy from there.
For those unfamiliar with Facebook, it’s the invention of California computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg, who was just 19 when he launched the “social utility” Web site in February 2004.
He and a group of Harvard classmates (some of whom are now suing Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea) took a few stabs at different kinds of on-line networking before finding one that really clicked.
First came Coursematch, which let Harvard students see who else was taking the same classes. Then came Facemash, one of those “hot or not” Web sites.
That last idea got Zuckerberg in big trouble with Harvard’s administration, as he’d taken student images from the university’s Web site without seeking permission. He quit Harvard shortly after and launched Facebook.
Membership was initially restricted to Harvard students. But within months, it opened up to include the seven other “Ivy League” post-secondaries in the northeastern U.S.
Soon after, anyone with a college or university connection was eligible. By 2006, all you needed to qualify for Facebook membership was an e-mail address.
The Web site is essentially an electronic meet-and-greet - a combination of blog, chatroom and electronic photo album. Given that I can barely make it through all the electronic communications I’m already getting in a typical day, I wasn’t planning on finding anything about Facebook enjoyable.
But it got to me. I started out a skeptic just trying to be nice to a relative living abroad, and in no time at all had transformed into an enthusiastic Facebook user. I still don’t really know how that happened.
I suspect it started with the picture.
Posting a photo isn’t a Facebook requirement or anything like that. But once you give in to that first invitation to be somebody’s “friend,” how long are you going to be content with having a big question mark come up instead of your picture every time you send them a message?
So you upload. And then you go to your site to see how the picture looks and discover that somebody you went to junior high with has written a message on your “wall.” Somebody else has sent you a “gift” - some teeny little electronic image of a birthday cake or a cheery glass of bubbly (Choose gifts with care - a puppy in a basket will set you back $1 US).
Next, your eyes stray to the status section of your page, where various Facebook friends have posted brief comments about their activities of the moment. “Rebecca is hung over,” says one, which tells you all you need to know about whether the birthday bash you’d heard about earlier had gone off successfully.
Further down the page, a new friend - who’s in fact a long-lost one, from grade school - posts a dozen photos from Calgary of a party she was at, and writes nice comments beside your own photos. Pretty soon, you’re sharing memories that you forgot you even had in common.
The young have embraced Facebook most fervently. Of the almost 350,000 Facebook users who belong to the Vancouver network (which includes the Island), only 500 of us are ages 48-55. The numbers only get skimpier from there.
Older people will love the concept once they give it a try, and I’m already cooking up plans to lure a few Web-savvy seniors out for a Facebook test drive. In the short term, however, membership does skew a little young.
But there are benefits to that, too. I’m now hearing from some of my kids’ friends, who were regulars at our house back in the days before everybody grew up and set off to see the world. I’m stumbling onto people who I’d completely forgotten about, sharing life’s small details with people I didn’t even conceive of ever talking to again.
It’s not all happiness and light, of course. I haven’t yet fully grasped the very public nature of Facebook for those who choose to leave their sites open to all Facebook members, and am occasionally indiscreet.
Last week, I inadvertently broadcast to the Facebook masses that my daughter was sick with terrible diarrhea and camping out on our couch. A few days later, I loudly proclaimed that my mother looks much better for having lost some weight. (Note to self: The Wall is public. The Wall is public.)
But hey, we’re all friends here. And as it turns out, I’m not minding that at all.

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