Monday, April 16, 2007


The one about Facebook

Back when I started blogging in January of 2005, a lot of my friends rolled their eyes. Half of them had no idea what the hell a blog was, and those that did (I'm looking at you, Übergeek!) thought blogs were the domain of tech geeks and lovesick 14 year old diarists - not 30-something working mothers of preschoolers. Since then, a few more people have discovered blogging - like 30 or 40 million people - and blogging has become fairly mainstream.

In the same vein, try to keep an open mind when I told you that I am newly addicted to yet another social medium: Facebook.

*pauses to wait for gales of laughter and rolling of eyeballs and slapping of knees to subside*

Yes, I know. I know. There are multitudinous reasons that I should not be spending precious time and brain cells on Facebook. One of them is that I don't have enough time for all the crap in my life as it is, without adding another time sink. Another is that I'm actually over the legal age of majority, unlike the vast majority of other people on Facebook. But, I'm hooked.

So what is Facebook? Well, I'm still a bit of a newbie, and I only this week realized I could do stuff like import my own blog feed to show up in my profile. But you have a profile, just like any other social media site, and you can sign yourself up for various networks like where you live, where you went to school and where you work. (Beloved is a college teacher, and at the beginning of the year, they had a community police officer speaking at a staff meeting who opined that Facebook is the single most dangerous tool young people are using, because of the huge amount of personal information they share and how naive they are about posting their full names, addresses, mobile numbers and whatnot. Ottawa tech blogger EngTech had a great article about modifying your privacy settings to protect yourself, if you're interested.)

The addictive part, aside from the networks, is of course the interactivity. You can chat, or send messages to your friends. There are also 'groups' that you can join, which are basically bulletin boards with photo sharing capability. That's the quick and dirty - I'm quite convinced there's far more to it than I am aware, but that's what I've figured out by playing around with it.

It took a while. I signed up for an account maybe six weeks ago out of sheer curiousity. I figured if I'm going to speak with any authority about this social media stuff, I ought to take a peek and see what it's all about. So I signed up, created a bare-bones profile, and took a little tour. I checked my high school graduating class (Catholic Central Secondary in London, class of 1988) and not a single person was registered. I typed in the names of a few friends, old and new. Nothing. And I shrugged and said, whatever, and went back to catching up on bloglines.

Maybe a week or so later, I commented on one of Suze's blog posts about Facebook, and she 'friended' me, and then so did a couple of other people. Pretty soon I had a dozen or so friends, most of them from the blogosphere but a few from work, too. Then a really old friend, one from grade school and high school and one of the last people I would ever expect to see online (Fryman - it was Gary! Remember Gary??) friended me just before Easter.

Right about that time, I discovered the weirdly addictive and voyeuristic habit of surfing my friends' friend lists. I think that was the tipping point for me, where I started to actively check Facebook as part of my regular 'check-comments-check-email-check-bloglines' online routine. I'm still not wholly into it - yet. I signed up for a couple of groups, one for the KRZR bloggers, one for GTA bloggers and the people who read them, and one amusingly called "People who are too old for Facebook." (And I'm even older than most of them! Yikes.)

Speaking of age, I don't know whether it's a coincidence of timing or something that just turned on in the collective DNA of my generation like the homing instinct of salmon, but it seems like my peers are suddenly flooding on to Facebook in massive numbers in the past month or so. My highschool graduating class suddenly has more than a dozen members (only one of which I'd be remotely interested in hearing from and most of whom I had never heard of.) My real-life and online friends are coalescing into cyber-existence at the rate of a new friend every day or two. This mad herding of the 30-something crowd, of course, is a sure sign that Facebook is no longer cool.

It's not the cool factor that's got me hooked, though. On the weekend, I discovered a new pastime, one that addicted me firmly and fully to Facebook: surfing the 'friend list' of minor celebrities. I'm not talking about A-listers here, not even B-listers. But I was fascinated by the friend list of David Akin, a political journalist who has 'friended' major Canadian politicians (Stephen Harper and Stephan Dion among them), celebrities like Rick Mercer, and writers like Paul Wells. (Props to Colin at Canuckflack.com, who got me stalking looking at David Akin's profile in the first place.) And discovering them, I felt myself compelled to surf their friend lists, to see who else was cool and accessible. I've tried looking up a few favourite authors, for example, thinking maybe I'd be brave and send a note to say hello, but so far I haven't found any of the ones I've tried.

Aside from the voyeuristic aspect of Facebook, which somehow seems even more personal than blogging, not to mention the ethics of stalking people I don't actually know, there are social minefields to be navigated - especially for someone who considers a cocktail party unimaginably complex and fraught with potential peril. There is the issue, which has just happened to me, of what happens when someone you clearly don't know tries to 'friend' you. I don't want to be rude, especially since it's entirely possible that I do somehow know this person perhaps somewhere in the distant recesses of my foggy memory (one more argument against the over-30 crowd being on Facebook - our social histories are just so much longer and more complex than the teenagers who can clearly remember the first grade when I can't really dredge up clear memories of my early 20s.) At the same time, much like I struggle when asked to add a blog I don't like to my blogroll, I don't want to simply add friends willy-nilly. Call me old-fashioned, but stating someone is my friend means something to me.

Thank goodness I haven't yet had to deal with the extreme awkwardness of having somebody I know but truly dislike trying to friend me. No, I'm not talking about you. But it is kind of ironic that even though I click every day to see who has signed up from my graduating class, with the exception of maybe half a dozen people, there is nobody from high school that I have the remotest earthly desire to hear from. Except maybe to puff up my chest and say 'screw you, look how good my life turned out. Doesn't it suck to be you in comparison?"

And I wonder why more people haven't friended me.

So what do you think? Have you been on Facebook? Why or why not? Do you think Facebook is the new e-mail, and our grandparents will be doing it before long?

And, erm, if you're on Facebook, feel free to look me up. If you can't find me, send me an e-mail and I'll tell you the secret clubhouse handshake to get in the door.

(Edited to add: one more reason to love Facebook - tonnes of Canadian content. From Kris Abel's CTV blog today: "A recent explosion of new users has placed Toronto (Canada's largest population centre) as the biggest group of users in the world (almost half a million), offering more members than both New York and Los Angeles combined." I had no idea! I thought it was just a coincidence of geography that so many of the people I was stumbling upon were Canadian.)