Media, Technology, and Education

Non-FaceBook Friends, Beware

Pat sent me this article from the New York Times. So if you’re a non-FaceBook friend of mine and I don’t return your phone call, I hope you’ll understand why.

Hey, Friend, Do I Know You?

Published: July 21, 2008

Not that long ago, I needed some advice on the book business and thought to ask my friend Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights” and “A Prayer for the City.” The only sticking point was, we’d never met.

Although he used to be a reporter, we are not what I would call peers. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever, and oh, one of the best books about city government ever. “Friday Night Lights” became a movie and then a television series and apart from me being a hopeless fanboy of the show, we have nothing in common.

Other than Facebook, of course, where we are “friends,” after he was referred by our mutual friend Vernon Loeb of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Taking that supplied noun as a permission, I sent Mr. Bissinger a message on Facebook and asked for advice. We got on the phone and I found out exactly, precisely what I wanted to know from, as they say in the Web world, a highly trusted source.

Isn’t “friendship” wonderful?

Facebook, which I had always thought of as a guilty diversion just a step up from Funny or Die, does have its social — and business — prerogatives. The network is on a tear right now, achieving numerical parity with MySpace in global reach.

Last month, according to comScore, Facebook had 123.9 million unique visitors and 50.6 billion page views worldwide while MySpace had 114.6 million unique visitors and 45.4 billion page views. MySpace still dominates in the United States, but if my page is any indication, a lot of people who aren’t texting OMG about the guy sitting in the next booth feel a need to opt in to social media.

According to company executives, Facebook, which has over 80 million subscribers worldwide, doubled the number of subscribers under 35 last year, but it tripled the number of subscribers between 35 and 54. Early adopters of Facebook, which was the province of students until 2006, must wonder who let all the old guys in. Sometime in the next day or so, Facebook will unveil a major new design for the site, which users can opt-in to.

As we speak, my Facebook page, a couple of months old, is crawling past 200 friends. There are people on there whom I have known since they wore skinny ties and distressed sport coats, and there are others whom I would not know if they walked up with name tags on the size of sandwich boards. But we have friends in common, and in the parlance of social media, we are connected.

Skeptics slag Facebook and its ilk as e-mail with pictures, but do not underestimate the value of a photo — oh, he seems nice — along with a referral. If the person pinging you is friends with five friends of yours, shouldn’t that person be your friend?

Once you jack in, Facebook creates its own imperatives. Why am I uploading pictures of my last family trip to the lake in the Adirondacks at 11:45 p.m.? Because I want someone, anyone, to see them. But from a business perspective, it creates some more complications. Say the head of a media company that I occasionally cover wants to “friend” me. Seems O.K., but should he really know what I look like with my shirt off? (Trust me, don’t let the image linger. I shower with my shirt on.)

I neither want to be strategic in my postings nor selective in my friending, but I should probably be doing one or the other. I am also not religious in maintaining my profile, in part because I have no personal assistant to update my page, as one executive I know told me he does.

Its viral effects can be profound. Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out (gee, wonder how I found that?), began that mission on his Facebook page in November of 2007. The endeavor outgrew its Facebook nest and was reborn a few months later as, which offers sources to reporters who post. It started out with 694 members; now it has more than 15,000.

I think of Facebook as a middle ground between business and pleasure, sort of MySpace for post-adolescents or LinkedIn for professional late adopters like me. Facebook, developed by Harvard kids to keep track of each other, was unleashed on the world in 2004 and has become an Ivy League at large for the land-grant set, a place where it’s not whom you know, it’s whom you kind of know.

But some people want no business mixed with their pleasure.

“Web sites are similar to TV and radio stations: people expect some form of programming format,” wrote Tyler DeAngelo, interactive creative director at DeVito/Verdi. “I don’t want to hear country music on a rock station, so why do I want to hear you talk about financial reports in the same place I discuss who I have been hooking up with?” (Besides, he adds, “I’m not sure you want Tom from accounting checking out your hot daughter in her bikini last summer.”)

Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of Facebook, noted that the site is not primarily a business tool. “We are not going to help you close a deal, but Facebook is a social utility that is relevant in many contexts, including business,” he said. “As you get older, there is this huge tapestry of your life, with many inflection points from where you went to school and the jobs you had, and as more and more people connect with you, it rapidly increases the utility.”

But at some point, you lose utility as well. As Simon Dumenco noted in Portfolio, Bill Gates dropped the habit after getting 8,000 requests a day to be friends. Some social truisms — the rich will always be popular — still hold in the supposedly flat world.

When a new media winner like Facebook comes over the horizon, who loses? In my case, it’s probably my real actual friends. As a reporter, I learn to hate the telephone during the day, but at night I feel somewhat social again and step out onto the porch to call buddies for a little nocturnal quality time. Now I am too busy checking their status updates to actually speak to them.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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