Saturday, March 29, 2008

Part 3 – The Facebook Phenomenon

The name of the website refers to the paper facebooks depicting members of a campus community that some American colleges and preparatory schools give to incoming students, faculty, and staff as a way to get to know other people on campus. (Wikipedia)

Facebook has certainly made its mark. Created in 2004, Facebook is one of the most well-known social networking sites. In January 2007, the site had 3.3 million users, compared to a whopping 15.3 million users a year later (Peesker). While Canadian Facebookers showed a recent drop in use of the site, the U.S. figures show a continued increase in users per day (Peesker).

Facebook has dramatically affected the way people communicate. Many people have an account, or have at least been invited to create an account. Signing up for an account allows Facebook users to go out and find their friends who have also created accounts. Teens and adults alike can keep track of their friends’ lives by: viewing status updates; photo albums; sending notes, gifts, cards, and videos; as well as other fun and nonsensical applications available on the site. (I have sent “Tim Horton’s coffee” to my friends on Facebook; doesn’t that say it all?)

However, Facebook doesn’t impress everyone. Sites such Snubster, Enemybook and Hatebook are appealing to Internet users who get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek humour of mocking their friends and others who are just plain cynical (Parody sites start anti-social trend). One criticism of Facebook is that some users are “friend collectors” and add as many people as they can to their friends list as a symbol of status. Having hundreds of friends on Facebook doesn’t really mean that all of those connections are genuine or meaningful relationships.

The Future of Facebook?

Social networking expert Charlene Li states that although Facebook is entertaining, it should expand into more practical areas. Li asks: wouldn’t people like to know more about things such as what books or restaurants their friends recommend? While Facebook does offer some insights into the likes and dislikes of the users, there is a limit on the types of interactions which can take place, and it does not allow users the ability to share information with other user-based websites. As Li points out, there are difficulties which arise in the privacy filters which would need to accompany such interactions.

Therefore, Facebook may be “the leader of the pack” in social networking for now; that is, until something better comes along.

Privacy and Safety on Facebook

One of my major concerns when I first signed up for a Facebook account was about how to maintain privacy. I have learned that there are a number of ways in which users can safely connect with friends, while at the same time, not feel completely “exposed” on the Internet.

Under the “Privacy” tab, users can select the degree of privacy they wish to control on the following:

a) Profile – users can control who can see their profile and personal information
b) Search – users can control who can search for them, and how they can be contacted.
c) News Feed and Mini-Feed – users can control what stories about them get published to their profile and to their friends’ News Feeds.
d) Applications – users can control what information is available to applications they use on Facebook.

Additionally, there is also the option to “Block People” so that they will not be able to search for you, see your profile, or contact you on Facebook.

My preference has been to connect with my friends and family whom I know to be on Facebook, but now having done that, I have chose not to be available for anyone else to contact me. One main reason I have done this, was so that I would not be contacted by students. I preferred not to include them in this particular social network.

It is also interesting to note, that should a Facebook user decide to deactivate or delete an account there may still be actually be information connected to him on the site. Andy Greenberg’s article, “How to erase your Facebook profile” explains the steps necessary so that a former user actually becomes “web dead” on Facebook. Other web privacy information is provided by this article, such as: deleting your MySpace page, subscribing to ReputationDefender; deleting photos off your blog, and deleting Google results.

Social Networking and Cyberbullying

Bullying is not a new phenomenon; however, with the increased ability to produce and publish content on the internet, bullying has taken a new twist. Social networking sites provide opportunities to target and terrorize individuals in insidious new ways. Due to the fact that bullying can take a more anonymous form on the Internet, social networking sites can become open forums for bullies.

Many schools block social network sites for this reason. Furthermore, some schools have updated their student code of conduct to clarify that bullying by electronic means-"interactive and digital technologies or cell phones"-will be treated as seriously as the traditional schoolyard variety (Stover, 2006).

Teachers, students and parents must engage in discussions about what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate web behaviour. Social networking is similar to the other web 2.0 tools which require respect for other participants.

* An excellent source of information about online safety can be found at:
Social Networking Sites: Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens.

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