Facebook Reconsidered

Maybe I was wrong about Facebook.

Well, sort of wrong. I'm not admitting total error here. I am just modifying my original opinion that FB is a giant waste of time disguised as a triumph of technology.

And I am pulling back from the position that it's the exclusive domain of slackers, Internet addicts, and poor souls who need a hobby.

When I first heard of Facebook, I thought of the freshman directory from college. That's what the guide to the new girls was called back then. The format was simple: Everyone's high school graduation portrait and hometown printed in a tidy little paperback volume. Originally intended to introduce the incoming class to the campus community at the small women's school I attended, the book quickly became a hot commodity at every men's college within 100 miles. In that long-ago print world, your face was your fortune. For frat boys armed with the guide, there were no blind dates, no unpleasant surprises in the dormitory parlor. The girls, lacking this visual aid, were not as lucky.

So I had a jaundiced view of directories, and it wasn't improved by my first impressions of the new social networking phenomenon. Bubbly testimonials about reconnecting with grade-school classmates left me cold. If I wanted to know the whereabouts of these shadowy figures from my past, surely I would have found them by now.

But curiosity, and the fact that frequent updates on my faraway grandchildren are available through this medium, compelled me to investigate. I've now conducted several months of primary research, aka lurking (with permission) on the Facebook page of a significant other. There I have had the opportunity to observe the many faces of FB, and have come to the following conclusions.

At its best, Facebook is a handpicked community of people who share snapshots of their lives with each other. It's easier than e-mail, less of a commitment than a phone call. And of course, it offers that 21st century sine qua non, instant gratification. You talk about your bad day, your broken carburetor, your favorite band and presto! Someone comments. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it's helpful. Sometimes it's just a flicker of light on an otherwise dreary Thursday afternoon.

At its worst, FB is a time thief and a diary of trivia. Let me go on record here: I don't get Farmville. I don't want to get Farmville. If I never read another Farmville post again, it will be too soon. For the uninitiated, this is some alternate reality game where you pretend to have a farm and collect animals. And why would anyone beyond the age of 7 be interested in this? I have no clue.

At its worst, FB is a source of Way Too Much Information. Detailed accounts of personal plans make me uneasy, as all the caveats about electronic communication surely apply here. Despite protestations about increased levels of security, my impression is that it remains about as private as a postcard.

At its best, FB is a hopeful place. The links to good causes large and small, the reports of candles lit instead of darkness cursed, the pictures of new babies and new houses and stories of people doing the next right thing could actually make you cheerful for a while.

At its best, FB makes the world less lonely. The friends seem present, because they are—their real-time, real lives immediate, familiar, comforting. The ties that bind may run through cyberspace, but the connections are authentic.

So where's my page? I'm still reflecting. And still lurking.