Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Facebook phobia?

Now that I'm a junior, I'm finally taking freshman english. Here's a paper I just wrote for the class.

Trepidation today towards tomorrow’s technology is typical. Plato feared the written word, claiming that we’d develop a dependance upon written information, and lose the ability to remember things. Thoreau opposed the telegraph, fearing that it’d kill verbal communication. Samual Moorse (probably naive of Plato and Thoreau’s fears) insisted that nothing productive or important would ever take place on the telephone, because there was no record of the conversation. So what about Facebook?  Should we take pause at the idea of openly sharing our lives online? Does Facebook have a detrimental effect on the social lives of those who use it? Or can Facebook, like it’s technological ancestors, actually enrich and enhance our  communications and relationships?
But before we go any further, let’s make sure this deserves our attention. Allow me to explain: Technology, like music, has game-changers and one-hit wonders. You can tell when somebody started using the internet by the one-hit wonders they remember. I could list technologies that never quite caught on, but if you were familiar with any of them...they probably would’ve caught on. Game-changers, on the other hand, significantly change the way we behave, often becoming ingrained in our lives. If Facebook is destined to become just another blip on the internet timeline, than this discussion is no more important than who is dating who in Hollywood this week; but if Facebook will help shape the future, then it’s important for us to decide how we’ll take part in that change -- even if we choose to not take part at all .

So will Facebook make the game-changer cut? Looking at other game-changers provides a clue. Hotmail brought email to the masses. Google changed the way we search. Napster took digital music from obscurity to ubiquity. and eBay pioneered the world of ecommersce. Facebook is currently ranked as the fourth largest site on the internet. Like it’s game changing ancestors, it’s significantly changing the way we work, play, and in this case, communicate. Though attitudes change fast on the internet, it appears that Facebook is here to stay. How, then, might Facebook shape the future? We can answer this question by looking at who is using the site, and how.

A look through Facebook revealed that over half of my extended family are members of Facebook. Many of them even have recent activity on their profiles. I asked my friends -- via Facebook of course -- what they use the service for. Most are using it as a sort of next-generation personal email; that is, an easy way to stay connected to friends and family, both near and far away (On the evolution of email: I infrequently get chain email messages these days, but frequently see chain status messages). 

The most common Facebook usage scenario is the one played out by the most active visitors on the site: The ~33% of Facebook users who visit the site on both their computers and cell phones. While out and about, these users share bite-sized chunks of their day one byte at a time with their friends. Think about it: you’re not likely to email all your friends to tell them that you’re coming out of a movie you really liked, that you’ve finished painting the kitchen, or that you just enjoyed an awesome lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall; but these are precisely the types of things shared on Facebook. These updates, brief and frequent, help friends stay connected far better than a yearly christmas card letter. If you’re raving about a movie or restaurant on Facebook, chances are one of your friends was raving about it before you. 

But sharing movie recommendations with dear but distant friends is no substitute for connecting with those immediately around you. Self-acclaimed experts frequently find fault with Facebook for supposedly stifling real social skills. Ironically, one thing Facebook excels at is bringing people together for parties and other gatherings. With over half my mom’s side of the family on Facebook (Grandma *and* grandpa included), it proved the perfect place to coordinate our bi-annual Thanksgiving feast. Through Facebook and a shared Google spreadsheet, plans were made, assignments delegated, and schedules coordinated. The result? A delicious full-course feast for over 100 people with minimal fuss. 
This applies to hobbies as well. I dabble in Photography, and part of my dabbling is to participate monthly in Provo Photowalk: a  gathering of local photographers who teach each other, and take pictures together. The group leader coordinates everything via Facebook, which is where I discovered the group. When I wanted to invite a friend, I simply sent them to the Facebook group page, where they were able to join instantly and get acquainted with other members of the group before we even met. By the time the photowalk rolls around, everyone is already good friends. After the photowalk (or family thanksgiving, for that matter), we’re able to share photos from the event online.

Still few, if any, advances in technology come without their pitfalls. True, we haven’t forgotten everything by writing it down, but how many people in your phone could you dial from memory? Thinking about Moorse (and perhaps because of my call-center work experience), I can’t help but wonder how different customer service calls might have been before the days of “This call may be monitored for training and quality purposes.” Facebook has it’s uses, but it’s certainly not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Researchers at Ohio State University studied Facebook use by students. Searching “OSU Facebook” brings up an article on their work as the second result on Google -- right below OSU’s Facebook page. Though more research is required for a comprehensive conclusion, they found that students who used Facebook had GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5, while those who didn’t use Facebook had GPAs between 3.5 and 4.0. Facebook, like many other internet sites, also plays host to it’s fair share of fraud, identify theft, and sexual predators. Does this mean we should turn our computers off and head for the hills with pitchforks and gas lanterns? Hardly.

Like many other technologies,  Facebook is not inherently evil. It’s risks are found in how it’s used. Anybody who spends hours on Facebook each day, rather than doing their homework, is going to do poorly in their classes. The same could be said for those who neglect schoolwork to watch television, play video games, or spend time with friends. Yet many movies inspire, video games can be a great way to relax, and only a recluse ignores his or her friends forever. When used responsibly, Facebook isn’t just a form of entertainment, it can actually be a powerful way to move and share ideas. 

Facebook, alongside other technologies like Twitter, LinkedIn, and text messaging, is part of a rapidly evolving industry of new -- and often controversial -- ways to communicate digitally. While there’s no substitute for real (as opposed to virtual) charisma, more and more business communication is taking place online, through the written word. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine a day when “social networking” skills are as essential to employers as an understanding email and Microsoft Word. Spending a little time with sites such as Facebook can both help us keep in touch with our friends, and keep us ahead of the curve in the business world as well. To my real friends who I find missing from my Facebook friend list, I say drop your luddite views, and instead learn how to responsibly supplement your personal and business relations through this thriving online community.