More Book than Face

Posted on November 22, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It’s been just over a month since I dove face-first into the social network program Facebook.

Knowing the origin of the site as an electronic version of a university class picture directory, I expected it to be a forum dominated by kids and college students.

There’s a thrill to experiencing the unexpected, however, and here on the cusp of the Thanksgiving holiday I’m grateful that I didn’t let my preconceptions keep me off the site. Although about half of the more than 300 million Facebook users are said to be under the age of 23, there are a whole lot more in my age group posting status updates than I ever imagined.

The numerical nature of the Internet blends seamlessly into Facebook. Everything’s counted. Friends, requests, messages, suggestions, invitations, comments, likes, photos and even minutes and hours since posting are all exhaustively enumerated.

During my first five weeks, my friend counter went from zero to 316. (It’s not unusual for people to have more than 1,000 Facebook friends.) I’m also a fan of 15 pages and a member of two groups.

The adding of friends is Facebook’s most defining feature. Not only can you befriend the people you see at work, church or the kids’ school activities, but you can search the vast database of Facebook users for long-lost acquaintances. Within the first couple of weeks, I had reconnected with several elementary school classmates. I also found old friends from high school and college, and some business colleagues I hadn’t seen in years.

One of the neat things about Facebook is that it lets you touch base with the people from your past in a very unobtrusive but effective way. You can send a private e-mail type of message, leave a wall post or chat live.

It turns out that there’s also a lot more “book” to the social site than “face.” Like other Internet institutions, Facebook is considered an electronic medium, but it relies heavily on the printed word for content and information exchange.

A few will post pictures and videos on the status update feeds that form the center section of members’ home pages, but overwhelmingly people write stuff. Topics are all over the board. In one 43-minute span, I learn that one of my Jonesboro friends is attending a scuba-dive lesson; another in Little Rock explains the influence the railroads had on the creation of American time zones; and a Texas friend announces that her child’s braces came off today.

With words carrying the Facebook messages most, it’s not surprising that the site has already influenced dictionaries. The word “facebook” was the Collins English Dictionary word of the year in 2007, and just this week one of the site’s derivative words, “unfriend,” was named the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2009.

Eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s “unperson” word from the novel “1984,” unfriend is officially defined to mean “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.”

I haven’t unfriended anybody yet, but before adding more new words to the language, the Facebook crowd is missing a whole slew of existing words and phrases that could be valuable additions to its online vocabulary. Unfriending may not be as frequent as “hiding” a friend (so that their posted status updates no longer appear on your page), which could easily and accurately be called a facemask.

Currently, Facebook doesn’t time your login session, but if it did it could be the facetime with faceon and faceoff buttons to replace login and logout. Facesaving might be the act of trying to salvage employment after making disparaging status update posts about your job or your boss, only to remember too late that she had been added as a friend.

Creating a formula to compute the thumbs-up “likes” and positive comments to a particular posting could give face value to various status update items. It’s simple to make a comment or show approval for a status update, but there’s no easy, obvious way to express a contrary opinion. Offer a clickable about-face icon and watch the Facebook fur fly.

The online site eBay has power users. If Facebook wanted to similarly stratify its members by certain measures—posts, friends, comments—the upward mobility term could be facelift. For business members who create pages about their company, Facebook could create a series of design templates known as faceplates.
One of my favorite functions of Facebook is its events section, which keeps up with friends’ birthdays for you. That alone makes it worthwhile for me.

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