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Maha Atal ’08: Silly rabbit, Facebook is for kids

Monday, September 24, 2007

I checked my Facebook profile today. I had some wall posts from two or three weeks ago that I’d completely forgotten about. They were the kind of posts that expect a response: “When are you free for coffee?”, “Are you watching the U.S. Open?” or “What time is yoga class?”

I used to respond to posts like these. Sometimes my wall would be filled with 5 or 6 posts from one person, all from a single evening when we were both home. Other times posts were only one word or phrase, and the wall post exchange worked something like a replacement for instant messenger.

Sometime this summer, those conversations ceased. The few forgotten posts on my wall are relics of a dying practice. The most recent posts, instead, come from my mother, a former boss and a woman I’m trying to bring to Brown for a political science conference. All are over 30. None are people I’m interested in poking or turning into a Facebook Zombie – what are they doing on my social network?

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the convenience of Facebook. Nowadays, I never forget birthdays. And with Facebook messages, I no longer have Brown’s e-mail server telling me my inbox is full.

But the way I use the site has changed since it opened up to everyone. My friend list now includes potential employers, family members, politicians and most recently, a friend request from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. If I ever apply there, I’m not sure I want the admissions representative searching my pictures from my freshman year. Which means to stay on the new Facebook, I might have to censor my profile or my postings. Many of my more career-savvy friends already limit their profiles from November to April because that’s when they apply for summer jobs.

Even worse, I’ve suddenly begun receiving messages from complete strangers. At my summer internship at BusinessWeek, sources would send me leads over Facebook. With a fairly common Arabic name, I’m also an easy target for anyone searching for single women of Middle Eastern descent and the number of suggestive friend requests I get from men over 35 is growing.

Between the stalkers and the increasingly frenetic, messy layout of the applications, Facebook is starting to feel just like every other social network. The company says this is the goal: to make Facebook a platform for all our online activities, from doing business to having a food fight.

But the reason I once loved the network was its specificity, a place to talk and share photos with my friends, a site that always felt a little bit safer, more exclusive and calmer than MySpace or Friendster.

That culture is being eroded, first by the expansion of members to the general population, then with an application policy that gives users’ personal data to application creators.

Exclusivity finally went out the door this month, when Facebook announced that all our profile pages would be searchable. That means when a future employer or grad school professor Googles you, they’ll have access to data on your profile page. The disclaimer on the Facebook news feed reminds me that I can change my security settings to disable the search function anytime. But dumping the responsibility of protecting Facebook’s data on me, rather than asking users if they wanted pages to be searchable, is an alarming policy.

Some grown-ups I’ve talked to have a different excuse: Facebook was designed for hip, young things, who don’t care about mixing up public and private. One of my BusinessWeek readers was surprised when I asked him to e-mail me his comments at work. He didn’t know that “my mates and I hold such a clear line between business and personal.”

But young people are as concerned as anyone about our privacy. We have grown up with identity theft and accounting fraud. We understand that personal data is capital and we are eager to protect it. Like generations before us, too, we have multiple identities – professional, social, familial. Just because the Internet allows us to link them all doesn’t mean we want to.

Maybe in the early days of Facebook we were overly eager. For a while, we liked the hyper-connectivity of being able to find out all the personal details of the guy in our biology lectures. But that connectivity was confined to our student world. The organizers at Facebook have forgotten that their chief offering was community, not connection.

Now I’m using Facebook less to keep in touch with college friends. Last weekend, my housemates and I threw a party for which all the invites went out by email, because we agreed that “Facebook was too public.”

For the next generation of college students, Facebook offers even less community. They joined Facebook in high school-it’s no longer a privilege awarded to the campus elect. And they already know that data on Facebook will extend into their professional lives.

So as we, the first generation of Facebook users graduate this year, I wonder if the network isn’t about to give way to a new student craze. I’m stumped as to what the next college social medium might be, but while I wait, I’m going to back to “old” technologies like cell phones, e-mail and (refreshingly) face-to-face conversations.

Which has me thinking that maybe the demise of Facebook is a good thing after all.

Maha Atal ’08 now corresponds by telegram.

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