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What are Facebook friends for?

The Pharaohs built statues. Caesar put his visage on coins. We use Facebook and MySpace.

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But in doing so, might we miss an opportunity to get to know someone intriguing merely because we discover that her MySpace profile says she is a Republican? Or a vegetarian? Or passionate about karaoke? Our personal technologies allow (indeed encourage) us to filter out the things that we find distasteful – television commercials, boring tracks on a CD, political opinions with which we disagree.

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Egocentric friendship

Social networking sites encourage a similar sort of egocentric single-mindedness about friendship. Friendship in that world has become an online instant opinion poll – immediate gratification for the person casting his vote, perhaps, but discouraging of reflection beyond that initial snap judgment. This has already spawned a culture where many people have more "friends" than real friendships. The impulse to accumulate as many "friends" as possible on a MySpace page does not stem from a desire for connection, but instead is an expression of another deeply felt human need: the need for status. In earlier centuries, the painted portrait was the marker of elite status that members of the middle class quickly adopted once they rose socially.

With the advent of online social networking sites, we have embraced a medium to create status, not merely to commemorate the achievement of it. By creating a profile and gathering thousands of "friends," we signal to others our importance. There is a reason that most of the MySpace profiles of famous people are fake: Celebrities don't need legions of MySpace friends to prove their popularity. It's the rest of the population, seeking a form of parochial celebrity, that does.

It is unclear how the regular use of these sites will affect long-term behavior – especially of children and young adults who are growing up with these tools. Almost no research has explored how virtual socializing affects children's development. What does a child weaned on the youth site Club Penguin learn about social interaction? How is an adolescent who spends her evenings managing her MySpace page different from a teenager who spends her nights gossiping on the telephone to friends? Given that "people want to live their lives online," as the founder of one social networking site told Fast Company magazine, and they are beginning to do so at ever-younger ages, these questions are worth exploring.

The few studies that have emerged do not inspire confidence. Researcher Rob Nyland at Brigham Young University recently surveyed 184 users of social networking sites and found that heavy users "feel less socially involved with the community around them." He also found that "as individuals use social networking more for entertainment, their level of social involvement decreases."

Another recent study conducted by communications professor Qingwen Dong and colleagues at the University of the Pacific found that "those who engage in romantic communication over MySpace tend to have low levels of both emotional intelligence and self-esteem."

The implications of the narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies of social networkers also cry out for further consideration. Describing the results of her recent study that found significantly higher rates of narcissism among students, researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University told the Associated Press, "Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism.... By its very name MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube."

There are opportunity costs when we spend so much time carefully grooming how we look on the Web. Given how much time we already devote to entertaining ourselves with technology, it is at least worth asking if the time we spend on social networking sites is well spent. By investing so much energy into improving how we present ourselves online, we might be missing opportunities to genuinely improve ourselves.