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

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A01

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.

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.

(Mark Zuckerberg promises more privacy safeguards)

* * *

Maybe the exhaustion is generational, with digital natives -- under 30s -- bringing different expectations to the site than the older digital immigrants. "Technology doesn't create a separate world," Tufekci says. "But it does create some new norms." Digital immigrants, says Tufekci, might never comprehend the semantics of a site that labels both your priest and your ex-boyfriend's ex-roommate as "friends."

Another thing: Seriously, Mom. You do not need to sign your name to your wall posts.

Facebook: It is a fact that the people who lead the least interesting lives will post the most updates on them. These updates will be about how they can't wait for Friday, how they are glad Friday is here and how they are sad Friday is gone.

Defriend. Defriend. Defriend. Defriend.

Facebook True Story No. 2: "I thought I'd been very discriminating" with friend selections, says Renee McGivern, a consultant in Minnesota. But now she's wondering what she really has in common with these people at all. "It's really starting to be like the old telephone party line, where the vast majority is all idle gossip." Isn't it ironic, she says, that we're going back to that?

As a solution, "I'm hiding people like crazy." She lowers her voice. "And they don't know it! How do you tell people you're hiding them? They see me and they assume I've been reading all of their posts."

The guilt. The guilt you used to have over forgetting a friend's birthday is now magnified because it's always someone's birthday, somewhere in your network.

Gone are the days of unfolding conversations, news revealed in person and with dramatic pauses: We are . . . getting . . . married!

Now we enter everything mid-discussion, already debriefed.

Facebook: Oxygen Media released a recent survey in which 42 percent of single women 18 to 34 said it was okay to post drunken pictures of themselves. Who are these women?

Facebook: It's ruined our concept of privacy.

On the other hand, says David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect," maybe that privacy is a dated construct -- at least according to the site's philosophy. The company's ethos implies that people should "have one identity -- that perhaps it's unethical to present one identify at the office and another at home, or one face at the golf course" and another at a party, says Kirkpatrick. Maybe everyone should know us as the same person, whomever we decide that is online.

Maybe we are afraid of our own unified identities? Maybe the thing that is unsettling about the site is that it is the relentless online version of running into your cool soccer friends when you're hanging out at Five Guys with your church group? Multiple competing variations on yourself, and all of them true.

(What facebook knows about you and who it tells)

* * *

Facebook: Is still as bright and shiny as it ever was! How else to explain books like "Facebook Fairytales," which recount how people have found love, found long-lost relatives, found organ donation matches. There is so much redemption on the site, so many chances to see how the mean girls turned nice and the nice girls stayed that way.

Facebook: There are still people who are not on it. I don't gettttt it, they say. What does it dooooo?

Facebook: The lazy weekend afternoons bleed into evenings. The eyestrain headaches, the cramped fingers. We think about getting out of the house, calling up a friend. But then again, we already know what they're up to. They are "watching 'Coraline' with Isabelle and waiting for the laundry to dry."

Is this site enriching our relationships, or is it making us too lazy to check in with people in person anymore? Have we sustained ourselves on a friend diet of bread crumbs for so long that we no longer want sandwiches?

Facebook True Story No. 3: "I really value thoughtfulness and rigorous" dialogue, says Amy Alexander, a writer in Washington. But on Facebook, "I find myself chiming in with glib asides," for the amusement of her network. "I feel like I'm getting ADHD. I feel like it's inhibiting my ability for thoughtfulness." She joined the site in the middle of 2009 and is now considering a moratorium, to get her brain back.

Alexander, like so many others, is still negotiating boundaries. When you're still relatively new to Facebook, it seems like, if you just try hard enough, you can keep up with each and every Facebook friend.

But here's a secret early adopters know: You can't. It is impossible to water everyone's Farmville, coo over everyone's puppy pictures or get annoyed by every inane status update.

Eventually, Facebook will fade into the background of your life, no longer new and perhaps actually boring -- about as remarkable as a ringing telephone.

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