We asked Alex Friberg (Wheaton class of 2010) to write a piece on the online phenomenon called "facebook". You may remember Alex as the co-presenter (with Paula Krebs) of our facebook TNT back in October of 2007
Facebook. It's a ubiquitous fixture in college life, so embedded in our social fabric that it can come as a surprise that the website is little more than four years old. Originally designed for just Harvard University, Facebook is now open for anybody with a computer and Internet connection.
The core of Facebook is the profile. This is the space everybody gets that they can customize and use to introduce themselves. There's a space for information like what schools one has attended and contact information. There's also a space for matters of opinion--favorite books, movies, music, etc. Users can also add photographs of themselves or whatever they want. Basically it's a great tool for getting an idea of who somebody is.
Perhaps more importantly, the profile also holds The Wall, which is the key means of communication on Facebook. The Wall is a message board where friends can leave comments. Typically people use it for little hellos and meeting arrangements. While there is a message option that allows for letter-sized correspondence, The Wall just gives you space for a short paragraph. There's no obligation to say anything meaningful or substantial. Most people forgo rules of grammar and spelling. It's quick and convenient; the essence of what Facebook is.
Using The Wall could be described as cell phone texting on a computer. While some users actually have access to Facebook from their phones, there is a key difference: A phone beeps, buzzes, or somehow notifies the owner when a new message is received. Facebook does not. With it's widespread use, often as a means of coordinating plans, this forces users to log on to check, and log on often.
While if you check any random person's Wall most of the messages will probably be from good friends, Facebook also fills an important social gap in communication between getting to know someone and exchanging cell phone numbers. Giving somebody your phone number allows them a certain power to intrude on your time whenever they want. Friending them on Facebook means you can keep in touch during that between time (or ignore their messages more easily).
And this is the paradox of Facebook. As great a tool it is for getting to know people and easily communicating with them, it also provides users access to a lot of information about others without any need for interaction (the term for this is "Facebook Stalking"). It also lets people carefully control exactly what people see of them. In a way, a Facebook profile is like one's personal public relations assistant. When it comes down to it, it's up to each individual user, all 80 million of them.