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.

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Credit: Annie 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. Those kinds of social juxtapositions can make you giddy. (Isn’t that what’s great about having a wedding, the chance to see all those different worlds collide?) But the constancy of those collisions―uncontrolled by seating arrangements, unlimited by the size of a catering hall―can also be uncomfortable, even baffling. Forget about the photos of boozy revelry that everyone worries a future boss might see. What if a prospective love interest sees the link to a Wham! fan page that someone sent you in an act of generosity but under the misguided presumption that your tastes hadn’t changed since eighth grade? As another friend puts it: “People on Facebook seem to perceive you as the person you were when they last knew you, as if the past 10 years hadn’t happened.”

In its early days, media pundits hailed Facebook as the social application of the future, and yet what it really does is change our relationship to the past. Facebook makes contact so casual that it allows people to leapfrog back instantly to a former you, one you thought you had left behind―maybe one you had worked hard to put firmly in the past. People reaching out via the site don’t need to know anything about how you’ve changed in order to be in touch with you. They type your name into the site and―ta-da! ―there you are.

My friend Joanna, who requested I not use her last name, recently accepted a friend request from someone she hadn’t seen since the sixth grade and found herself plunged into the social anxiety she had experienced at that age. Suddenly she had access to the online conversations of her classmates. How was it that everyone seemed to have stayed in such close touch? Why were they ignoring her comments? Why were they making fun of the fact that they had sung “The Rainbow Connection” at graduation, a memory Joanna had always considered sweet and lovely? “My memories are being invaded by other people’s memories,” she wrote me.

On Facebook, the past is no longer distant and blurry, a source for vague wonder and speculation. Just today an old boyfriend from my teenage years, someone I never thought I would hear from again, contacted me on Facebook. Out of the blue, in the middle of my workday, I found myself pulled into that familiar eddy of adolescent insecurity and infatuation, whether I was in the mood for it or not, just as Joanna had been placed squarely back in an emotional space she was certain she had left behind for good.

Shortly after accepting the Long-Ago Ex’s friendship, I was offered current pictures of him and his young son, details about where the family vacations, a photo of his wife. No longer would I have the option of musing on or imagining the Ex’s fate; on Facebook, practically every chapter of one’s life that has ended, for better or for worse, may be reissued with its own epilogue. Beautifully loose ends can be tied up, without warning, into something finite and sure. It makes you wonder: Whatever happened to…whatever happened to?

For some people, it’s that time-traveling component that makes the site worthwhile. “Facebook is my daily portal into my past,” my friend Jennifer DePreist wrote me when I asked her how she feels about the site. She says it connects her to her former self: the one who talked politics with her law-firm colleagues and traded arcane pop-culture trivia with her college friends―and who now still does, only via Facebook. I imagine that for someone as professionally accomplished as Jen, who has now turned her attention to her family, or for anyone who works at home, like my husband, Facebook provides an audience, a sense of collegiality. On it, you share that witty observation not with the one friend you’re e-mailing but with an extended community of peers, many of whom may chime in to let you know they noticed or were impressed or disagree.

Some of my friends, not to mention my husband, are forever changing what’s known as a status update. My husband’s status updates are tiny, jewel-like one-liners: “Alan Burdick to-did all he could to-do.” “Alan Burdick just tripped the fuse-box fantastic.” I read his and so many others’ witty or insightful weigh-ins and I find the challenge of updating my status utterly daunting: It’s not just a statement of being; it’s also a chance to show off, to amuse, or to inspire. Hence, even though I’m a writer, or maybe because I’m a writer: total paralysis.

For all my ambivalence about the site, I’ve noticed that for me―a perpetually pressed-for-time working mother―the website has considerable advantages that offset its less ideal aspects. The site provides a hyperspeed overview of the boldfaced concerns and activities of my extended friends and family: In less than 20 minutes of surfing, I can learn what’s weighing on their minds, where they will be vacationing, and what movie they’re raving about―probably more than I would glean from a month’s worth of cocktail parties, mommy-group meetings, and dinners out. I know these insights may not be as deep as the ones I would be getting in person, but they’re better than the general information whiteout I felt I was living in before I started using Facebook. What I lose out on in face-to-face intimacy with my friends, I gain in seeing the way they converse with their other friends. From the Facebook page of a close pal in graduate school, I get a peek into her academic stresses and pleasures, and from the page of a scientist acquaintance, I get a better understanding of what her colleagues consider cause for jubilation.

For someone private, Facebook’s public nature can be its most uncomfortable feature. On your Wall, friends can post messages or videos or comments that everyone can see. Sometimes the conversations are mundane, and other times, deeply personal. (Case in point: I know of a couple with a penchant for posting rhapsodic love notes on each other’s Walls, proving that online PDA can be just as cringe-worthy as the real thing.) But at their best, Walls can provide a chorus of spontaneous, built- in morale-boosters. The day before a friend of mine went into labor, all her friends gave her shout-outs and encouragement on her Wall, a unified force of positive energy.

Sara Morrissey, a 24-year-old Facebook friend of a friend of my sister, runs half marathons and says that the Wall is there for validation when you need it. “It’s nice to get that gratification from others saying, in front of everyone else, that they’re proud of you,” she says. “And it gives you the chance to openly ask for that support, too.”

The challenge for me as a Facebook user is seeing it as a tool to make my life richer, not more labor-intensive. I found that I was most unhappy when I adopted a passive role (which is true of a lot of things besides Facebook). Initially, whatever showed up on my page, I felt obliged to check out, whether it was a short video of a coworker’s newborn or a list of 25 random things about my babysitter’s boyfriend. But then I started skipping all that and started remembering to keep tabs on my sister’s Facebook page.

My sister lives around the corner from me, but because we both work full-time, you would never know it. After I started checking her updates daily and commenting on them or sending her notes whenever I could, we became closer―almost as if we were popping in and out of each other’s houses a few times a day. Those frequent status updates can give you what my writer friend Clive Thompson calls a kind of proprioception about the people you care about―a sense, at all times, of how they’re feeling or what the trajectory of their day or week is like. In this harried world, that knowledge can be both gratifying and grounding.

When people ask if I’m on Facebook, I usually answer, “Sort of.” I check in when I can, but when I do, it’s with trepidation: I know I’m going to feel energized by the social life I’m suddenly rejoining and besieged by guilt and a little anxiety for all that I’ve missed.

I may laugh at a comment a close friend posts on my Wall or be glad I have the opportunity to send a condolence note when I learn of the loss of someone’s grandparent. But I also find myself wondering what it all adds up to. Why did that friend from sixth grade send me a message, only to leave me hanging once I replied out of politeness? Is it really comforting for that friend to receive a condolence note via Facebook? Am I comfortable doing it in the first place?

What Facebook has added to my life is thousands of mini moments, glimpses of life, if not actual experiences. Those moments get squeezed in among the big, movable parts of my real life, and as long as they don’t take up too much space, I think I’ll be happy letting them in.

Do you love Facebook? Hate it? Feeling conflicted about joining it? Share your thoughts here.