It’s the ultimate networking tool. The masterpiece of Mark Zuckerberg, a dropout from – where else? – Harvard, Facebook.com has managed to network our generation of college students. Because of Facebook, students keep in touch with and keep track of one another; relationships with friends or lovers studying abroad can survive without the pain of paying postage; and alumni can keep in touch with buddies on campus. It’s a win-win.

Sarah Royce

Facebook’s beauty (before its News Feed feature went off the deep end by making any and every transaction available for all your friends to see) is that it offers two things no other type of communication does: favorable numbers and relative anonymity.

Numbers, in that one can send dozens or messages, pokes, and wall posts at a rate with which telephone calls cannot compare – and with none of the risks of a bad phone call. Relative anonymity, in that an unreturned message or unrequited poke doesn’t pack the same psychological punch that an unreturned voicemail would. With Facebook, one can send many seemingly personal messages, wall notes and other social love-taps to large numbers of people, at minimal risk to pride, because by putting out so many hooks, one expects a certain number will bite. Through Facebook, we can numb ourselves to the harsh possibilities of personal communication – things like unanswered phones, uncomfortable silences and the word “no.” With Facebook, one can shoot shotgun shells of communication at minimal cost to the old ego, with little effort and to great benefit.

Facebook might be the Hotel California of the Internet: You can check out, but you can’t ever leave. Reactivating a “closed” account is but a confirmation e-mail away. And if your account is never completely closed, who’s to say that your pictures and any information you’ve ever put on Facebook aren’t sitting in some room in a file with your name on it? With the new News Feed feature, we know that Facebook is tracking all of this information, and we know it will assume liberties in spreading that information to other account holders. We complain about things like wiretaps while making our lives open books. If Big Brother is in fact watching, let’s at least make him do some work in finding the information he wants.

I wonder if Facebook is indispensable despite its drawbacks. Most of us continue to use Facebook today, despite its grade-point ramifications and other risks. We all know that law enforcement and prospective employers use it to weed out unsavory characters (pardon the pun), yet people continue to post pictures and tag others in pictures featuring too much booze or too little clothing – and, in the worst cases, both. All law enforcement and employers want to know, they can learn on Facebook.

In an ironic way, it’s been funny to hear the outcry of those disturbed by the News Feed feature. It’s often the worst offenders of good Facebook judgment who complain the loudest. By their logic, it’s not a problem that they put partially nude pictures of themselves online – rather, it’s a problem that Facebook moved them to the front page. By way of Facebook, we’ve been given just enough rope to hang ourselves socially; it was only when Mark Zuckerberg tightened the noose that we began to ask questions. And now we’re signing petitions. I wonder if we’ll eventually reach the point where our enjoyment on Facebook comes not from actually making contact with someone else, but in destroying evidence.

That brings to mind Facebook’s most troubling problem: stalking. Because of Facebook – and our need to appear interesting – anyone curious enough can find most any information about you, down to your location that moment. Our most intimate details are but a log-in away. Anyone can know what your interests are, because you’ve written them out. They know where to “accidentally” bump into you, because your schedule is available for all to see. And now they even know with whom you’ve been communicating, because News Feeds just made stalking even easier.

Irony of ironies, then, that the ultimate networking tool has become the ultimate aid of the kid too shy to talk to the girl who sits next to him in class. Facebook hasn’t brought this person out of his shell – it’s hardened that shell, giving him little reason to leave. Why bother? All he really needs to know, he can learn on Facebook.

Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu.

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