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Opinion

Is Facebook destroying our capacity for meaningful relationships?

While investors follow Facebook stock prices, it is we the Facebook users who will shape this new global social fabric. We must reinvest in self-reflection and in-person relationship building. We must use Facebook in ways that bring us closer together, not tear us further apart.

By Kate Otto / June 1, 2012

A magnifying glass highlights a Facebook page displayed in Munich. Facebook's highly publicized IPO has largely flopped. Op-ed contributor Kate Otto says it is Facebook users – not investors or Mark Zuckerberg – who will shape the digital future. She warns: Facebook-enabled behaviors 'translated into nearly disastrous results when I finally logged off and stepped into the 'real' world...'

Joerg Koch, dapd/AP/file

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"Did you join Facebook yet?" It was a question I fielded several times in 2004, the summer before I began college, as the fledgling social network was expanding beyond a handful of elite colleges.

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I felt unsure about joining, at first: Isn't college about making real relationships? Yet as Facebook began influencing my life, and my communities at home and abroad, I came to see its value in a new light.

There was the summer I spent in Tanzania developing a teenage health program with local high school students like Glory, a brilliant but financially poor young woman. Since then, via online fundraising advertised on Facebook, my friends have funded Glory's college education, thereby transforming her life and enabling her to raise herself out of poverty. She continues to keep us regularly updated through her Facebook posts.

When I moved to Bandung, Indonesia, to work with a local drug rehabilitation center, I saw Facebook empowering its entire cadre of peer support counselors, who spent hours on the site, via desktop or hand-held device. Facebook helped them track transient clients – young drug users or sex workers who lived with, or were at risk of contracting, HIV – and their virtual connectivity resulted in lives saved off-line.

When Facebook made its much-discussed initial public offering recently, it had engaged almost 1 billion members in less than a decade. It isn't far-fetched to project that Facebook will soon become a standard means for interpersonal interaction.

Yet the universalization of a Facebook-powered world is also worrisome. For all the good that comes when we take control of our Facebook accounts and use them for proactive outreach and connection, just as much damage occurs when we allow our accounts to control us, pulling us further apart from the people who are very close by.

For me, and most others of my generation, Facebook strengthened my ability to forge countless "weak ties" at the expense of fewer, but stronger, relationships. Posting regular updates coached me to write rapidly for a faceless mass audience and craft my publicly promoted identity as if it were a brand.

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