Friday, April 10, 2009

Is Facebook replacing face time?

Juneau residents find old and new friends are just a click away

Whether people tend to avoid new technology or embrace it, the online social network Facebook can't be ignored. The world's largest networking Web site is slowly but surely replacing face-to-face interaction, especially in Juneau, where residents often live thousands of miles from family and friends.

With five million new users joining Facebook each week, its user demographic is shifting from college-age students to teenagers, 30-somethings and retired adults. As users become more connected to friends, family and the community through online networking, more people are replacing face time with Facebook.

Many Facebook members say the Web site is addicting. Online networking can create a sensation of time and space collapsing when in the same day a person can connect with their second-grade crush, old employers, high school and college classmates, and professional colleagues.

According to the marketing research company Comscore, the average user is on Facebook 169 minutes each month. Some refer to the program as "crackbook."

Facebook's mission appears benign, claiming the sharing of information intends "to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Many Juneau residents, who live in relative isolation from friends and family Outside, have become well-versed in the benefits of Facebook.

Meilani Schijvens, a busy Juneau mom with two small children, said she absolutely loves Facebook. It allows her to use any extra minutes to catch up on people she cares about, Schijvens said.

"It's such an easy way to get in touch with people - no looking for lost e-mail addresses. It's an easy way to share pictures of my growing little kids. I'm in touch with all of my cousins for the first time ever and I'm in touch with people from all the different stages and ages of my life," Schijvens said.

Some people say they've learned much more about their friends' similarities by seeing what others are doing. This sparks new conversations and connections, thus deepening relationships.

But as millions of people flock to the site to reunite, share, learn and reminisce, those who don't join for various reasons often feel left out. Julie Johnson, a self-proclaimed "techno-phobe," is one Juneau resident who hasn't been ensnared in the Web.

Johnson has historically resisted technology. She doesn't have a cell phone, rarely sends e-mails and is resentful of pressure to join Facebook. Call her old-fashioned, she said, but she likes to send and receive meaningful pictures and packages through the U.S. Postal Service and receive life news over a cup of coffee.

Johnson is not alone but is quickly becoming the minority - a fact that frustrates her. She recently went on vacation with family. By the time she returned home, developed her film and was ready to mail her letters, the vacation was old news. Her family had posted their photos on Facebook during their first day back. Friends already were commenting on the great photos of Johnson on her vacation - photos she hadn't seen yet and probably wasn't going to unless she joined Facebook.

If Johnson had joined Facebook, her family could have "tagged" her in the photo, and she would have been notified automatically via e-mail. If people haven't posted anything more embarrassing than had a big hair portrait from the '80s, photo taggings can be fun; for others, they're a source of anxiety.

Gone are the days of tearing up or deleting a bad bathingsuit shot for posterity. "It's fun to have people post old photos. It's like looking through an old photo album with an old friend," said Kristin Cox, adding "and anyone else who is interested can see too."

Schijvens echoed this sentiment, saying she looks forward to seeing older photos. "Good thing for me, I looked better then than I do now."

Another busy mom, Tiffany Smith, said she wasn't afraid of photos because she "doesn't tend to work very hard to hide things that people may find unflattering. I just don't much care. I am who I am."

Others expressed a desire to keep the past in the past. Some people said they came to Juneau from another town where they had a reputation they would like to forget. They didn't want the past haunting them in their new life. Others expressed similar worries about a college concert photo or something similar resurfacing for their children to see.

Some college-age people who have grown up with Facebook are posting images of drinking and partying that might haunt them in the future - such as when a prospective employer is researching them on the Internet, or after they've just won eight gold medals. A good rule of thumb for Facebook: Don't post anything that couldn't be a newspaper headline. That brings up another issue: authenticity.

Some users say Facebook is like being invited to a party where you can only be nice, because you can only "like" a comment someone posts. Some users tend to share too much information, but there are others who tend to reveal very little. Many Juneau users don't want to be Facebook friends with co-workers in order to keep their work and personal lives separate and avoid awkward situations.

Christy Virgilio-Ciambor of Juneau has had awkward experiences with past romantic relationships and sharing on Facebook.

"Ghosts of boyfriends and girlfriends past can be odd because even though we're all friends now, there's a limit to how much I want them to know about my life and vice versa," she said.

With 175 million users networking on Facebook, it's become a target for nasty viruses that can crash computers. Facebook applications can plant cookies that are tracked down by hackers who access log-in information to target other Facebook users.

Using Facebook as a tool for community connection takes discipline and an awareness of what one might be disconnecting from when they log on. It takes work to not discriminate against non-users and make the effort to maintain connections with people who aren't using Facebook. Cox confessed, "It does eat up a lot of time when I could be doing something else, like writing a snail mail to my grandma who isn't my Facebook friend."

• Courtney Nelson is a writer living in Juneau.

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