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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Facebook learning

Lifestyle/Technology | Some tips for those who want to know more about "social utility"

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

If you're older than 40 you may still be trying to figure out the difference between Facebook and Linkedin and why you should care. Here is a brief newby guide to Facebook.

First the basics: Facebook is a "social utility" site, with more than 150 million active users-more than two-thirds of those live outside the United States. Although it was originally designed for college students, more than half of users are outside of college. The fastest growing segment is made up of those over 30 years old.

You've heard the expression "You're not the center of the universe," but on Facebook you are. When you join, you set up a profile containing information about you, including your favorite music, TV shows, and books-if you want to include those things. Then you assemble a network of "friends," people who are important to you in some way only you can decide. The easiest way to find friends is to let Facebook scan your email address book, searching for contacts who are also members. You can invite them to be friends.

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Some people define "friend" loosely to include co-workers, co-belligerents in causes, relatives, classmates, and celebrities. Others stick to a more traditional definition. You have the choice to admit someone as a friend or to ignore their request.

So what do you do with friends? Again, it's up to you. Facebook provides some basic ways to keep in touch. You can post a note about something. You can post links to articles or videos you want your friends to see. You can upload an album of photos. Your friends don't need to visit your page to read about you. Throughout the day their own pages have a running news feed consisting of updates from all their friends. Think of it as a customized newspaper about people you like. You can change settings to receive more news about some friends and less news about others.

Younger people who grew up with social networking don't seem to care much about who reads their stuff, but the rest of us may be leery of strangers having access to our personal profiles. Facebook allows you to choose what information from your profile is public and who gets to see it. Every member must provide a birthdate, but you can choose whether to make that information public or not. You can also choose whether to make public just the day (June 1) or the actual birth date, including year. For security reasons it's probably not smart to include the whole thing, but many people do.

I'm one of the cautious types, so my account allows only friends to see my profile. But not everyone is so cautious. I've become friends with some people and then searched their friends to see if we know anyone in common. Almost always they will have several friends with looser privacy settings. I may not know the person but I can read their profile (which often includes complete birth date and contact information, including address and phone number) and search their friends. And among their friends I can usually find more people who haven't protected their privacy. With everyone so concerned about identity theft it seems silly to put out personal information and then not bother to adjust privacy settings, especially when adjusting is easy.

Super tech politics

During the presidential campaign Barack Obama staffers were considered super tech savvy. As Salon put it, "Staffers-including very senior aides-could be found on various instant messaging systems more easily than on e-mail, and on e-mail much more easily than by phone." Imagine their dismay when they moved into the White House and discovered it still existed in the tech dark ages, where folks use PCs rather than Mac laptops. Worse, although some Bushies had wanted to use Facebook and Twitter, they hadn't been able to get past legal rulings declaring those social networking tools off-limits for security and archival reasons. "Suddenly, they have to relearn how to communicate, because the law has not caught up with the way people live," Salon wrote.

The first week was rough with email not working and the updated whitehouse.gov website slow to post developments. Critics complained that the new administration was busy complaining that it didn't have Blackberries while failing to post transcripts of press conferences and memos that the Bush administration routinely made available. Question to watch over the next weeks and months: Will the Obama administration use technology to further the goals of government or the political goals of the Obama administration?

And, although Democrats out-teched the GOP in last year's campaign, Wired magazine's blog linked to a list of innovative ways the Bush administration used the web, including a Facebook page for CIA recruitment and an FBI Most Wanted widget.

Cussed out

National Public Radio recently featured a segment about a 15-year-old boy who started a No Cussing Club at South Pasadena High School. McKay Hatch, one of seven children, said he noticed a swearing surge as he moved from elementary to junior high school: "The reason it bothered me the most is 'cause it was something they were using every other word, kinda like the word the. They kept using it and using it."

McKay asked his friends to stop cussing around him-and thus a movement, now boasting 30,000 members, was born. McKay and his media-savvy parents (they wrote Raising a G-Rated Family in an X-Rated World) have pushed the message on YouTube, in a forthcoming book, and on TV appearances.

The movement has generated a backlash. WikiNews reported that the hacker group "Anonymous" had hacked the website nocussingclub.com two days in a row. The group also said it had successfully hacked into email accounts belonging to the Hatches.

"Anonymous" also started its own "No Cussing Sucks" campaign, posted contact information for McKay online, and encouraged people to harass the Hatches. Unsolicited pizzas began arriving at their house. Pornographic magazines began to fill their mailbox. When the death threats started, the family contacted the police, who are investigating. One blogger gave a sense of the motivation behind the harassment campaign: "You mean, this kid is a result of parental indoctrination and not moral purity?! I'm shocked! . . . I would like to give kudos to whoever ordered $3,000 worth of pizza to McKay's house. It looks like the kid is getting some death threats too. Can't say I approve of those, but hey, McKay sleeps in the bed he made."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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