A mother and her daughter face up to Facebook

According to my daughter Joanna, a college student, the world is divided into three basic categories: friends, "Facebook friends," and everybody else.

I'm trying to get a handle on this. From what I can tell, Facebook friends are not friends in the same way that her pals are friends. In fact, Facebook might well be changing the nature of relationships, making them both more intrusive and yet somehow less intimate at the same time.

Facebook is a website, originally started exclusively for college students and first modeled on the actual photo booklets some colleges used to hand out. It has quickly blossomed into a massive online social network. Its enthusiastic users love being connected to so many people. But they're also discovering some unpleasant side effects: Employers can check up on potential hires, and colleges can quash a wild party – announced on Facebook – before it gets out of hand.

And Facebook is changing human connections in strange ways. College students still make friends the old-fashioned way, whether it's by spilling beer on someone at a party or borrowing notes from psych class. But students and other Facebook fans increasingly treat "friend" as a verb instead of a noun. It's not at all like "befriending" someone, which smacks of tea parties and handwritten thank-you notes. To "friend" someone simply means adding that person to your Facebook list of friends. It doesn't imply actual interaction – let alone forging bonds of trust or sharing intimate details of your personal life. It just means you've made the list.

Joanna responds: Well, what I like about Facebook is that you're never out of touch. I do have to admit that it's also borderline creepy – you're flooded with personal information about everyone, from your closest friends to someone you've seen on the elevators a few times. But how else would I find out the guy in class is newly single? Or that the girl down the hall is Facebook friends with someone I went to high school with? It's a conversation starter, for sure. Talking is SO last year.

It is kind of cool. I'm thinking of the less socially adept kids. Having a roster of Facebook friends is comforting – they have all these people on their list, even if they don't happen to have a date for Saturday night. In the same way that e-mail has given shy people the strength to give a quick "hey there" to the friend they might never call on the phone, Facebook keeps people in the picture, in a cyber-friendly sort of way.

Joanna: That's right. You've got Facebook to thank when, in your dorm's first hall meeting, you know half the names already. And you can blame Facebook for the lines you hear endlessly at parties: "I think I recognize you from Facebook." Then there's the most common line: "I am SO going to friend you tonight!" When you're walking to class and you can't shake the feeling you know the guy walking next to you, it's Facebook. And when you later realize that you not only know his name, but you also know that he's an ultraconservative Republican, it's Facebook.

I think I'll pass. As an aging baby boomer, I've pretty much ignored almost all online technology, expect for the wondrous uses of e-mail. I don't have a website, I don't blog, and I'm not really sure I see the benefits of instant-messaging, when e-mail is so quick and everyone has a cellphone. And the whole idea of creating my own profile on Facebook creeps me out. Just the other day, I started the registration process – you don't have to be a student to join – but when I got to the point where I actually had to click on my own children's profiles and ask them to "friend" me, I froze.

What if they refused to "friend" me, their own mother? What if they (rightly) decided that they didn't need to let me have access to details such as whether they were in a relationship? Or what they did on Halloween weekend?

Joanna: You have to understand why I can't be Facebook friends with you, Mom. Next thing you know, you'd be writing on my wall, nagging me about summer plans or doctor's appointments. That would be social suicide for sure.

She's right, I guess. Besides, I do have one ace in the hole: her big brother, Daniel, is on her friends list. I'm pretty sure that he would tell me if there were anything I needed to be worried about. But I do have one question: What's a Facebook wall?

Debra Bruno is a newspaper editor in Washington. Her daughter, Joanna Davis, is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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