State of the socially mediated union

When Facebook materialized in February of 2004, its creators defined it as an “interactive yearbook.” It was meant to be an online version of the print directories that freshmen used to receive-a simple resource linking faces, names and interests.

In February of 2009, tens of millions of users attend to the website with near-religious devotion.

For college students, especially, trying to wrap one’s mind around Facebook is like the fish trying to understand life in the fishbowl: We have no outside perspective. Today’s students have never experienced life without Facebook.

Once a simple map of social interaction, Facebook has become a world of its own.

Online social media are overwhelmingly powerful. Facebook is fascinating because no one can pinpoint the extent of its influence. Users build an identity on Facebook, an identity based in kernels of truth. They upload real pictures. They connect with real people who list real names and real experiences. This introduces a certain degree of accountability.

Users put a great deal of trust into the security of Facebook. Yet, the more they trust, the more vulnerable they make themselves.

This realization is exhilarating-we’re on the crest of something huge and unknown-but it also strikes a certain degree of fear into the reflective user’s heart. Such unpredictable growth is difficult to understand, and therefore difficult to control. Who is pulling the strings behind social networking sites?

As users build relationships through Facebook, they build a relationship with Facebook, itself.

All of this guessing may sound like a conspiracy theorist’s rant. But the possibility of misuse through Facebook is just as great as its myriad benefits-just think about this week’s “user rights” scare. Facebook changed its terms of use, which some interpreted to mean that Facebook owned all user content, even after an account had been deleted. A “Facebook Bill of Rights & Responsibilities” group was created by the site’s founders; it already has more than 65,000 members. The changes were revoked, but the possibility of misuse exists still.

Facebook is a social network, not a social service. Though many have come to depend upon its structure, owners have a bottom line in mind.

The free-love days of social networking may be coming to a close. We must understand how we use social networking sites and ensure that we are using it appropriately-and, to make sure that the tool doesn’t use the user.

It’s time to take a step back and look critically at social media.

Facebook has its own vocabulary. Five years after its conception, Facebook is as popular as ever. Computer users young and old log on several times per day to update their statuses, share and “tag” photos, “friend” and “defriend” people, “message” each other and “creep” on people across the country and across the world. Facebook has its own language and its own meaning.

Facebook has its own etiquette. You don’t need Miss Manners to tell you that personal information should be sent in a message, not posted on the wall; that no one writes on his or her own wall; that it’s narcissistic to tag too many photos of yourself; that “wall domination,” or a series of posts by only one poster, usually indicates a crush; that an “It’s Complicated” relationship status is either a joke or a cry for attention. Facebook users have developed their own social rules.

Facebook simplifies and expands social interaction. By proscribing you categories in which users may classify themselves, Facebook forces people into groups. These groups cut across many demographics: Age, class, location, religious and political affiliations are balanced by interests, activities and favorite books, movies and films. With the click of a mouse, any user may find hundreds of other users with similar interests and lives.

Facebook satisfies basic human desires to connect with others and control how they perceive you. A Facebook profile is not a person-it is a constructed representation of a personality. Though it may be difficult to filter oneself in real life, an online identity is easy to build and rebuild to personal specifications. On Facebook, users present themselves as they want to be viewed. They either hide behind their reflected personalities or use the network for accurate personality depiction. Either way, a static, online profile constantly communicates superficial truths to the world, which can be viewed anywhere and at any time. Only real-live interaction can capture human behavior, but Facebook spans time and space to project an identity.

Facebook is a phenomenon unknown to any generation before our own. Users are now linked through one website in a sort of global brain with a multitude of identities.

It’s been five years, and Facebook is still growing. User growth is bounded only by the number of people with Internet access. Grandma might not have a Facebook profile yet . but she will by Spring Break.

Personal information shared on this site is too valuable to be bought and sold. Though it contains the stuff of a marketing agency’s Eden, Facebook is intimately tied to an entire generation’s self-concept and psychological development. Mess with Facebook, and you mess with the minds of millions.

Maybe Facebook should become a non-profit organization, though placing something so important under government control is also cringe-worthy. The solution, then, is to look after our own privacy and develop a concept of online rights to go along with human and civil rights.

And we’ll be the generation to do it.