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Can Facebook Be Your Friend?

Unsure whether Facebook is worth the effort? One ambivalent user makes sense of how it changed her world and how (whether you’re on the site or not) it’s changing yours, too.

By Susan Dominus
Mouse on mouse padAnnie Schlechter
Recently I ran into a friend of a friend who instantly endeared herself to me by telling me how cute she finds my two-year-old twins. She even quoted something one of them had said just the day before: “Oh, my gosh, I did it. I peed on the potty!”

For a split second, I was confused. I had shared that moment with only the doting grandparents. Who else would care? Then I remembered this woman had never even met my children. Where on earth was this coming from?

“Oh, your husband posted the story on his Facebook page,” she said. “And all the twins’ pictures I’ve seen there are adorable.”

Even when I understood what was going on, I still felt unsettled, distinctly out of the loop. The exchange was a reminder that in addition to the social lives everyone juggles daily, there’s now a parallel universe of information exchange, social support, and general schmoozing―a shadow culture of friendship otherwise known as Facebook (facebook.com). Even if you keep up with, say, a circle of old friends via e-mail and in person, there’s a good chance you could be oblivious to a whole other dynamic if they’re on Facebook and you’re not. On any given day, they might be laughing about old photos someone posted or having a heartfelt online exchange about their kids’ college applications.

A force for socializing like no other, Facebook is a great game of six degrees of separation; a virtual, ever changing map of one’s interlocking worlds; or a visual, highly annotated Rolodex that’s available to select people in your life. Only on Facebook is friend a technical term: Confirm that someone is a friend and the site may announce that relationship to everyone else you’ve already listed as a friend. Depending on your privacy settings, the act of “friending” can also give that person access to a range of things you post on the site, from family photos to a deep (or shallow) thought for the day.

Those multifaceted capabilities can make Facebook a terrific time-saver. Want to let everyone know about a new job? Or whether the baby is a boy or a girl? Post it on your page. Then again, logging on to the site can become simply another item to check off on an already overflowing to-do list. When a colleague of mine recently joined, she immediately got a message from another friend: “Welcome to the biggest time suck of your life.”

Even the decision about whether or not to sign up can cause anxiety. Facebook has quickly become so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that those who opt out seem to be making a curious, stubborn statement, like those last few cell-phone holdouts once did.

“I already spend too much time on e-mail,” says Allison Pugh, a 42-year-old professor in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I knew Facebook would increase that online time by a factor of 10, and I wasn’t really willing to do that.” However, not long ago, a student asked Pugh to join a Facebook group dedicated to a cause Pugh cared about, and she reluctantly signed up. “I’ve been drawn in against my will,” she says, “because the site is such an important organizing tool for other people.”

It’s not just the time demands of the site that can be taxing; it’s also the complexities of online social mixing―which, in contrast to regular daily life, involves mysterious sets of protocol and frequent overtures from unlikely sources. At its most unnerving, Facebook feels like a crowded, never ending cocktail party, one where you might find a tormentor from junior high, a blind date from your 20s, and your boss’s boss all comparing notes―possibly with one another―on the photos you posted today from your 40th-birthday party last night.
 

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