The Web of Social Networking
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I confirmed a lunch date, made two friends, and asked somebody to be my boyfriend--without uttering a word. The first magic trick was facilitated by a text message; the second two by the social-networking website Facebook.com. When my romantic gesture was politely declined 20 minutes later, I was still sitting in front of my computer in total silence.
Launched in February 2004 by a Harvard computer science major, the Facebook now has more than 8 million users spread across 2,000-plus college campuses. Like cousins MySpace and Friendster, Facebook 's purpose is "social networking." Users create profiles that look like yearbook entries, except everyone can see their adoring signatures ("love you love you love" or "What happens in Cabo stays in Cabo!!!"), and instead of listing after-school activities, they record their favorite movies.
Membership on these sites has become ubiquitous. MySpace.com is one of the 20 most popular sites on the Internet, and Facebook is the top site for 18-to-24-year-olds. More than a few college students have found themselves the subjects of targeted campaigns to join the Facebook, and most have submitted.
Flirtations. Sixty percent of Facebook members log on daily to take advantage of its ever expanding ways to socialize. They update their profiles, send cute strangers flirtatious "messages," "poke" them, or reaffirm interpersonal relationships by formally asking people to be their "friend." A tally on each member's profile keeps count of how many friends he or she has.
The myriad ways to interact has made Facebook use an art not all can master. My solicitation of Thomas, a high school classmate I had not seen in months, was totally out of line. "You expect to be my Facebook girlfriend without even poking me or messaging me first!?" Thomas wrote. "You need to work on your Facebook etiquette . . . ."
If done right, Facebook can facilitate healthy real-life relationships. Last month, I talked to a girl I didn't know at a party. Later that night, she asked to be my Facebook friend. When I pushed "Yes," I confirmed our mutual bond in writing--skipping fear of rejection to cut straight to the chase.
On the other hand, Facebook ' s endless features can be dizzying. Having so many options can make addicts out of even the mildest users. After all, when asking your long-time crush to be your boyfriend requires only clicking a mouse, why not do it? When every login promises the possibility of a new friend request, why not hit "Reload"? Add college and binge drinking into the mix, and you get websites that offer advertisers a captive market with spending power. Perhaps that's why media pioneer Rupert Murdoch decided to fork over $580 million for MySpace earlier this year.
This story appears in the November 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.