Plumb Lines

April 14, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 6:49 am

Portraits by Jason Lee for New York magazine

Portraits by Jason Lee for New York magazine

Facebook has been in the news a lot recently. There was the flap over a change to the website’s Terms of Use allowing the company to hold copyright to and reproduce users’ content in perpetuity anywhere in the world. Then they redesigned the site to look like Twitter. And then there’s Twitter itself, which has spawned all kinds of media fawning and existential questioning of social networking. In January Farhad Manjoo, the author of the latter article and technology columnist for Slate, deemed Facebook all-encompassing a new medium that people simply must join. Matt wrote a post earlier about Facebook, too.

What motivated me to write a post about my Facebook use was the excellent article by Vanessa Grigoriadis in New York. Grigoriadis not only reports on Facebook’s past, present, and future, but she also provides the reader personal insight into what it is like for a 30 year-old new user of the site. I have often wondered why people outside of college would want to join Facebook, but as Grigoriadis put it, “When we use Facebook, we’re back in college.” It presents users a seemingly non-invasive way to keep tabs in their friends lives and to catch up with old acquaintances in an instant, she observes, without having to write a letter apologizing for not talking for so long.

I first found out about Facebook in May of 2004 when I was a senior in boarding school. My friend, who had been accepted to Harvard where the site was recently introduced, told me of the new order. “Have you heard about” he asked. I had heard of a facebook, yes, but not The Facebook. The facebook with which I was familiar was our school’s directory and an infamous resource for prank calls. Perhaps it is not insignificant that Mark Zuckerberg had the same experience with the facebook—he was class of 2002. We even had an on-line facebook provided by the student council. It allowed you to fill in your interests and information, but you couldn’t friend people. I am not certain if Zuckerberg had a hand in designing it, but he certainly would have been aware of it. IT eventually shut it down because students were getting too creative. This new site was similar, my friend said.

“It’s great. It’s like Friendster, but you have to have a college e-mail account and it’s only open at a few schools right now. When you get your e-mail address, sign up.” Around Bastille Day of the same year I did just that. I quickly found my friends from high school. And in a move  now considered creepy,  I friended people whom I had never met but was going to meet upon fall matriculation. I delighted in posting snarky things in my profile and (in time) on others’ walls. I still relish in telling younger cousins my version of the uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow story: “In my day, Facebook didn’t have groups or the the wall, and you had to type to get to the site!” My long-time membership, the site’s rapid growth, and its continued usefulness have not made me more loyal. They have led to a case of Facebook fatigue, in fact, and given me some pause.

I don’t enjoy the intrusion of more than 150 million people into what I once considered an idyllic college paradise. In leaving my actual college paradise for the less forgiving real world, I’ve found the sheer amount of material I’ve put on Facebook overwhelming. I also am worried about having semi-unknown people gawking at my life unbeknownst to me. About a month ago I took the advice of this primer on Facebook privacy controls to heart. I created friends lists limiting access to different parts of my account. I deleted old photos I had up and left a lot of groups. I also downsized my number of friends to a saner number, under 500.

The most difficult step in all of this has been deleting wall posts. There is no “reset button” for the wall. Sophomoric wall posts persist. To achieve a complete purge of your remarks you even have to go so far as to track down every item you wrote to friends and remove it. Complicating the matter, Facebook doesn’t allow you access to anything older than Fall 2006 or thereabouts without constant refreshing of the page. So far I’ve gotten back to August 2005, just a few months after the implementation of the wall. It didn’t take as long as you’d think, around two hours, but it took a lot of determination.

The difficulty I experienced in deleting the posts makes me want to leave Facebook even more. But that is a whole different can of worms. What interest does Facebook have in thwarting reluctant users’ desire to delete content? Especially trivial wall posts. I have no doubt these posts are stuck in some server somewhere, like the thousands of e-mails I’ve sent, but at least they are no longer accessible to anyone outside the company. I hope.

I find it ironic that the place where you design your own identity and decide what to share with others has become stifling. Facebook thrives on the perception that you are in control. This is only true for the most careful users. The vast majority of us are simply losing control of more and more information. I understand that I will never leave Facebook. It is a convenient communication tool, and it’s a fantastic way to waste time. A smaller footprint, however, would be preferable. I am getting closer to that goal and I encourage all of you to do the same. Being cloistered has its advantages.

Just don’t forget to blog about it and update Facebook and Twitter with the link…

-Michael E. van Landingham


1 Comment »

  1. Hey-Your post is strong. But has some smack of “I was here first” and “who are all these people.” But, well written and good points. The most salient point is that we can know about each other w/o actually interacting. I am constantly surprised by how much my colleagues know about me from tracking my facebook posts.

    Comment by Cheryl Smithem — April 14, 2009 @ 7:42 am

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