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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

Facebook's slap in the face

September 16, 2006

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the popular student networking site Facebook.com hit its first major rough patch: It became too transparent. It turns out that even members of the generation most comfortable with tell-all networking websites -- where people post details of one-night stands and political affiliations, among other

things -- have their limits and want a little mystery shrouding their constructed online identities.

Facebook began by allowing users from a few select colleges to post their names, majors, interests and a photo. As it widened its membership to more colleges, high schools and even certain employers across the country, the site started adding more features. Members could join groups, upload entire photo albums, post what they were doing in real time and write messages on friends' sites (much like Myspace.com). Nine million members later, Facebook.com has managed to keep ads to a minimum while becoming the top photo-sharing site and the seventh-most-trafficked site overall on the Web.

But on Sept. 5, in an attempt to make its 40,000 networks tighter, Facebook added a news feed of sorts. Whenever a user logged on, his or her home page would list in minute detail every change that every friend had made to his or her profile. Within minutes of logging on, a user would know who revised his favorite movies, who broke up with whom, who joined a new group or made a new friend. It was like instantly downloading a day's worth of gossip.

The users themselves made this information public, but they felt confident that only people who really cared -- true friends or dedicated stalkers -- would bother keeping up. Instead, every user's home page became a panopticon. Within days, 700,000 students had joined a Facebook group to protest Facebook itself, claiming that the news feed made information too easy to gather. The site's organizers backpedaled, allowing students to pick individual items they wanted or didn't want to appear on the feed, or to opt out all together.

In other words, Facebook gave its users still more control over the presentation of their online selves, the real purpose of any social networking site -- and all the more meaningful for college students, who are at an age and in a context in which re-creating identities is important and even encouraged. It's no wonder that students didn't want every friend to see the minutiae of the identity-construction process -- the exact time that interests or favorites are taken down, added or altered. We're all a work in progress, but each change along the way needn't be memorialized.

Students have come a long way from the paperback orientation facebooks that colleges once distributed, with their now archaic mug shots and selection of simple biographical facts. Now students can craft and control their own images broadcast to peers. The final product -- not the process -- is what students want to show the world.

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