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Status symbol: Facebook is ubiquitous, but is it really an antisocial network?

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of the social networking site, said in a Washington Post op-ed that Facebook will try to simplify its privacy settings.

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Earlier this week Facebook acquired its 500 millionth user. This means that more people are on Facebook, which got its start a mere six years ago, than live in the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. Fewer people live on Facebook than in China, but Facebook is banned in China. If it weren't, then Facebook would have even more users.

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How to mark this moment? The social network has taught us, above all else, the value of the brief and tangential -- the "ambient intimacy" that social scientists use to describe the site, where users become close simply by absorbing the casual status updates on each other's lives.

So, updates, then. A series of scattered ways to think about our relationship with this sprawling, looming thing. "What's become ordinary is that you are interacting with hundreds of people in the same space," that the compartments we once created for our interactions are dissolving, says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County who studies the social impacts of technology.

"You're having connections that were never before possible," Tufekci says. "It's profoundly altered our relationships."

Uh-uh.

But maybe, yes?

* * *

Facebook: It has rendered obsolete from the English language the phrase, "I wonder whatever happened to . . . "

Facebook: The bigger it gets, the more grumbly we get. In a recent survey on Web site satisfaction conducted by ForeSee Results, Facebook was ranked behind Google, Wikipedia, Bing, behind almost everything in its category, at 64 points out of 100. It's never doing quite what we want, even when we don't know what we want it to be doing. (We want it to stop changing its privacy settings.)

Facebook: The nostalgia, the elation, the lazy weekend afternoons spent with fingers poised over keys, trying to recall names. The kid from AP Chem. Whatshisname. Jason Whatshisname. The gratification when we found him, living in El Paso, maybe, working in pharmaceuticals.

Facebook: It's bigger than Jason Whatshisname. The vastness of the network's size means that our connection webs are increasingly complicated, too. "We usually think of connectedness as one-to-one, connecting to another person or connecting with information," says William Powers, the author of technology liberation manifesto "Hamlet's BlackBerry." "But in a larger sense, what we're really connecting to is the crowd," to that barbaric yawp of humanity. We're deciding how public we want to be, and what we want that public to think of us.

Facebook True Story No. 1: "I used to respond immediately to friend requests," says Madeeha Syed, a music writer in Pakistan who has been on the site for a few years. "But in the past six months I'm tired. I'm just tired." She no longer recognizes the people who are friending her. She used to deny these strangers, but two weeks later they would try again, forgetting they'd already been rebuffed once. Now she just lets the requests build up into a teetering pile that looms over her sanity. It's up to 447 now. "Four hundred and forty-seven requests is very intimidating," she says.


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