Facebook Friends

It was a late July afternoon when it happened. I had finished updating my Facebook profile only hours before. I had deftly changed my work information, personal information, and education, in addition to the most important change.

Phil and I had been dating for a few weeks, but only our families and a few close friends knew. I was telling friends slowly, hoping to avoid a conspicuous mass announcement to the 672 friends, acquaintances, and readers linked to my Facebook profile. When I quietly removed my "single" relationship status from my profile, I was nearly positive that the innocent update would blend with the multitude of others.

But Facebook is smarter-and quicker-than I am.

Within hours, my e-mail in-box was flooded with messages from Facebook. Phil, who does not even have a Facebook account, called to tell me that he had been receiving e-mails and voice messages all day.

With a detailed and unstoppable "news feed" constantly announcing changes to friends' profiles, Facebook had used its signature red heart icon to proclaim to the world that "Shayna Bailey is no longer listed as single." Acquaintances from my graduate school program, my sister's mother-in-law, and even Phil's cousins-who already knew we were dating-were demanding to be updated.

Communicate, communicate

Facebook boasts some 150 million active users. People sign up for the chance to keep up with family en masse, connect with lost friends, and potentially meet mates.

In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, created the social networking site as a venue for fellow computer science students at Harvard University. Shortly after its conception, Zuckerberg expanded membership to include the entire Harvard campus. As popularity swelled, Facebook became a mainstay of Ivy League schools. By 2006, when I joined, Facebook was open to all college students. Still, only students or alumni with valid college-affiliated e-mail addresses could join.

This initial privacy is what attracted many young professionals looking for a social networking site that was unlike such overexposed, spam-heavy sites as MySpace. Users could create profiles with photos and information about their education, interests, political and religious views, and even what they were looking for from the site?friendship, networking, a relationship. Today, an overwhelming multitude of applications allows users to create events and invite friends, send virtual gifts, post news articles, and even link their online shopping purchases to their Facebook account.

Users as young as 13 can join now, with no college affiliation necessary. Recent data also shows that some 1.5 million Facebook users are between the ages of 45 and 65. More than 50 percent-in every age bracket-are women. The popularity of Facebook has reached such astounding heights that even CNN.com provided a link this past January for users to RSVP to the presidential inauguration via their Facebook pages.

Are you there?

So, why are so many people flocking to Facebook? For many users, it's a one-stop shop. Instead of writing a blog, maintaining a photo site, and checking an e-mail account, joining Facebook is all it takes. And because of Facebook's many users, it's likely that work contacts, friends, and relatives are members, reducing the need to keep that bulky Rolodex or handwritten address book within reach. For international contacts, Facebook has a remarkable capability to support some 38 different languages and allows users to chat in real time. Moreover, Facebook hosts many utilities that were once restricted to office management programs, including a programmable calendar, an automatically updating phone book, birthday reminders, free virtual gifts, and reminders about events that have been RSVPed to. For the tech-savvy user who values time and utility, Facebook is the online equivalent to a Super Wal-Mart. It's also free.

Unfortunately, just because Facebook can be customized to be a party of 500 of one's closest friends, it's not without inherent privacy risks. Although one must confirm those who request to be linked through friendship, Facebook still provides a plethora of opportunities for victimization. Unless one amends the default privacy settings of their page (see "Common FB Questions" on page 13), any member of a network can view a user's entire page. This is particularly dangerous for users networking in big cities, with accessibility open to thousands of strangers.

Students applying to college or the workforce should be especially astute, as Facebook is also becoming an increasingly popular screening tool for admissions and human resources offices. In addition to gauging motivation and focus from self-described "interests," "activities," and "about me" sections, screeners can also view the photos of potential applicants?some of which may not have even been posted by the user. By simply adding a tag to a photo-listing the name of a person displayed in a photograph-anyone can link your page to a questionable photo that they choose to post. Although users have the option to "untag" themselves from these photos, many young people often have hundreds of pictures to wade through.

For others, they may simply be unaware of the pervasive nature of the information posted on Facebook or any other social networking site. For this reason minors should be encouraged to limit the information they share online. For example, cell phone numbers or addresses-even a college dorm room-should never be listed on a profile page. Also, although Facebook now prompts users to enter a birth date when they join, users can choose to not display this date anywhere on their page. Because identity theft is facilitated by having a birth date or social security number, choosing to display only a month and date, or nothing at all, is wise.

Even when editing personal profiles, users should be reminded of the audience for whom they are writing. Others besides close friends are usually reading. For this reason, one should err toward caution, respect, and positivity in any descriptions made about school or personal interests. Finally, nothing intended to be private should ever be posted in pictures or on a wall?regardless of security settings. Just like on a public Web site, users can save, copy, and repost information coming from your "private" Facebook page.

Despite the risks of Facebook, thousands of Christian women are finding it to be an ideal tool to chat, share photos, and keep in touch. They are locating loved ones, forgotten acquaintances, and church family online. Adventist users also now pepper the site, promoting their churches, women's ministries groups, and upcoming conferences. One can even add pages that support and advertise The Quiet Hour, the Review and Herald Publishing Association, or the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Just as the number of Christian users grows, so does the influence of our message and Christian spirit. We need to be mindful and considerate of our online behavior and continue to strive to be "the aroma of Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:15), even online. Most important, Facebook should never become a replacement for traditional forms of communication. Nothing can substitute for the warmth of a hug, the comfort of a spoken prayer, or the slanted penmanship of a good friend.

Shayna Bailey is best known for her relationship advice column "Unplugged," published in Insight magazine. She also writes for Adventist Today online and works in the field of adolescent psychology. Shayna's first book, GODencounters: Pursuing a 24/7 Experience of Jesus, was recently released by Pacific Press and is available at your Adventist Book Center or by calling 1-800-765-6955.

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