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It’s Facebook official: Social-networking sites are changing the way relationships develop

November 15, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Shawn Fennewald wakes up on the south side of Columbia. It’s an ordinary morning. The 23-year-old readies for the day, checks Facebook and departs for work at Boone County National Bank. The workday ends. He goes home, checks Facebook, bums around and checks the site again before going to sleep.
Facebook is part of the “old ball and chain,” Fennewald says with an undoubted sound of embarrass-ment in his voice. “I hate admitting to it.” He adds that checking the site three times a day and updating his profile at least once every two weeks seems a bit compulsive.
His reliance on Facebook for social networking developed in college, Fennewald says. He signed up for an account as a student at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. “In college, so much of what was going on was communicated through it,” he says, “and all my friends were on it.”
Nonetheless, Fennewald’s Facebook habit persists after college. Since he moved from St. Joseph to Columbia in 2006, Fennewald has been on Facebook as much if not more than during his college days.
Currently, Fennewald has 167 Facebook friends at Missouri Western. He still talks to two or three but insists he was in regular contact with most prior to leaving campus. Now Facebook is a device he uses to make new friends and guide others to good music while keeping in touch with folks from high school.

The unknown effects

Like any new pharmaceutical, the long-term effects of social-networking sites remain unknown. There is no standard four-out-of-five-psychologists-agree statistic to advance in support for or against the multi-billion dollar industry.
Sociologists, psychologists, communication experts and therapists are unsure what to make of this relatively new phenomenon. Questions of whether the sites work to improve day-to-day communication or lessen the chance of interpersonal interaction loom.
Meanwhile, the sites grow, and media moguls vie for chunks of Facebook, a company initially created for college students by 24-year-old Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg. MySpace isn’t up for grabs; News Corporation, the media conglomerate that owns Fox and Dow Jones & Co., bought the social-networking site for $580 million in 2005.
The stakes for Facebook are higher. In October, Microsoft paid $240 million to invest in 1.6 percent of the social-networking site — a move that values Facebook at $15 billion.
The site’s membership figures might reveal why Microsoft is coughing up so much change for the online giant. Approaching its fourth birthday in February, Facebook has more than 53 million active users and is catching up to MySpace’s 110 million active users.
Of Facebook’s users, more than 37,000 are members of the MU network, nearly 1,000 belong to the Stephens College network, more than 2,700 have joined the Columbia College network, and more than 27,000 belong to the Jefferson City/Columbia network. Users can join more than one network and remain in them post-graduation. For example, a search for alumni yields more than 500 matches in the MU network alone.
An October survey of 9,743 Americans by Zogby International and 463 Communications even reported that nearly a quarter of those surveyed said the Internet could “serve as a replacement for a significant other.”
But Wayne Brekhus, an associate professor of sociology at MU, doesn’t take such an extreme stance. He says the sites enhance communication and that research exists in the sociology field that battles the conception of people interacting less because of the sites. An August study from Michigan State University, “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends’: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites,” suggests that Facebook helps some of its users create and maintain positive relationships.
Brekhus says the public perception is that a bunch of nerds sit in front of computer screens, refuse to interact with anyone in person and do bizarre things such as
e-mail someone down the hall rather than converse vocally. Although Brekhus admits to e-mailing nearby colleagues, he says the reality of the situation is much different than the stereotype.
“They facilitate face-to-face interaction by allowing for networking online that then gets reproduced in real space,” Brekhus says.
Toni Rahman, a local licensed clinical social worker and parent educator, recognizes that the Internet and networking sites could improve communication. She also acknowledges that electronic media could stunt some elements of social growth.
“I wonder if this practice is an easy way out for people who have a hard time relaxing in social situations or a hard time spending time alone developing self-image, personal interests and engaging in activities that lead to self-discovery,” she says.

Social Networking Etiquette 101

Social networking brings with it a host of important considerations such as “Does this profile picture make me look like a model?” Besides encouraging vanity, the Web sites have created their own codes of online conduct. For newbies, here’s a quick rundown of some basic etiquette guidelines.
1. Use the poke application on Facebook sparingly or not at all. Its message is ambiguous.
2. The question “So, are we Facebook official?” should not enter a conversation between two people who have just begun dating.
3. Conversely, don’t reference MySpace or Facebook when dumping someone.
It’s tacky.
4. Keep friendships diverse. This is mostly for the guys: It’s not OK if more than 85 percent of your friends are women, especially if those ladies’ profile pictures look like a slide show of Hef’s favorite bunnies.
5. Facebook is not Don’t use these sites as dating services.
6. Don’t request friendships with strangers. Social networking might change relationships, but pre-Facebook/MySpace contact is still important.
7. Use the mass invite function in moderation. Not everyone wants to join the “Finishing Harry Potter 7 is like Destroying the 7th Horcrux of my childhood” group.
8. Similarly, don’t invite friends who live seven states away to a concert this weekend at The Blue Note. Chances are they won’t make it.
9. Keep an orderly profile. No one likes a MySpace profile with a bright pink background and yellow text.
10. Less is more for wall posts and comment sections. Resize photos before posting them on a MySpace profile, and limit lengthy wall posts.

The narcissism factor

Image is what the sites’ millions of users seek to control by designing a profile. Listing favorite bands, television shows, books and quotes, and filling out an open-ended “About Me” section lets users create a comprehensive definition of who they are. Users can add to that persona by posting pictures, signing up for horoscope and specialized quote applications and showing their support for political candidates and hot-button issues.
Columbia College student Davey Hafley, 21, says she spends about an hour each week perfecting her profile. She has several applications including “Top Friends,” which lets users rank Facebook friends. But she most enjoys the bumper stickers and “Big Photo” software that allow users to post large photos on their profiles.
MySpace embraces personalization with profile backgrounds, friend rankings and slide show abilities. Facebook lacked similar capabilities until last May, when the company launched its open platform, Facebook f8. The feature lets third-party companies create applications such as “Scrabulous,” an online Scrabble competition between Facebook friends.
“Facebook ends up being sort of a public presentation of who you are,” Brekhus says. “You’re basically putting out a public self.”
This public persona makes it more difficult for users to feign online identities, Brekhus says, because leading multiple lives is more difficult when one integrated self is presented on a networking site. Even so, the site doesn’t ensure the accuracy of profiles — and it most definitely doesn’t employ fact checkers.
Mary-Janette Smythe, associate professor of communication and director of undergraduate studies in the department of communication at MU, warns of the sites’ inaccurate information. Although she hasn’t seen statistics, she assumes that people selectively present personal information. The sites can also lead to problems with flaming, which is placing inappropriately aggressive or offensive posts on walls and message boards.
Those problems came to a head in September when New York state consumer fraud lawyers sued Facebook for falsely advertising itself as a safe environment for minors. In an October settlement, Facebook announced it would immediately post warnings for children using the site and would speed up its responses to harassment complaints.
Ultimately, such a popular site can be a breeding ground for problematic antics. “Perhaps the old watchwords for consumers apply equally well to the brave new world of Facebook and MySpace: caveat emptor — let the buyer beware,” Smythe says.

The relationship defined

Facebook and MySpace have turned popularity contests into quantifiable measures of defining friendships. It is not uncommon for users to befriend more than 200 individuals all while defining their current, more intimate relationship in one of the Facebook or MySpace categories: single, in a relationship, in an open relationship, it’s complicated, engaged, married or swinger — one of MySpace’s more dubious labels.
And everyone has a story about the labeling.
“I’ve heard that someone found out they’re dumped because they read it on Facebook,” Brekhus says. “I don’t know how common that is, but I have heard of that.”
Brekhus doesn’t remember who told him about the couple with an online breakup. Although most Facebook users can relay a tale about a friend of a friend who signed online and found his or her relationship status switched, few have met those couples or can name them. In some ways, Facebook separations seem to have become virtual myths.
Perhaps the rumors exist because the labels, to many, are serious, and things aren’t official until it’s Facebook official, says Fennewald, explaining that both parties have to approve the relationship on the site and officially broadcast it to the online world.
Ashley Steffes, 22, is engaged, and her profile says so. “I like that there is the relationship title option,” she says. “It allows for a connection with your significant other.”
For Steffes, announcing her engagement online creates a public acknowledgement of the relationship and her partner.
But all titles are not viewed equally. Stephens College student Emily Quartaro, 19, was “complicated” with Kyra Koelling, according to Facebook.
But it was a farce.
“I am jokingly complicated with a friend of mine because we thought it was funny,” she says, adding that realistically, it’s quite comical how a relationship “nowadays isn’t official until it says so on Facebook.”
Although Steffes is serious about her Facebook engagement, she notes that most people who use the complicated label are, like Quartaro, just playing around.
“The ‘it’s complicated’ title is a joke,” Steffes says. “I can’t imagine someone wanting to advertise, in all seriousness, a complicated relationship.”
These titles and official declarations create an aspect of permanence in friendships and dating that is altering the landscape of normal relationship development. Acquaintances can screen one another’s favorite movies, books and quotes. Friends can share photos immediately after a party, meeting or vacation. And Facebook even offers a warning when users change a dating label: “Your relationship will be canceled on save.”
“Networking sites have had a profound impact on the ways in which people meet new partners and maintain existing relationships,” Smythe says. “In a very real sense, these media create a sense of immediacy and access that was heretofore unknown to the average individual.”

The Generation Gap

Ken Logsdon, coordinator of advertising and promotions in MU’s theatre department, sat down with a group of college students last year for a brainstorming session. He needed marketing help, so he sought ideas from the local youngsters on how to effectively promote the department’s events to their generational cohorts.
They immediately suggested Facebook as a promotional medium, so Logsdon started a group complete with a jester logo to get the word out about upcoming events and auditions. “I knew about Facebook, but I hadn’t thought about using it until I thought about asking them,” he says.
Even with Facebook experience and group administrator abilities, Logsdon won’t sign up for a personal account.
“I’m much too old to be on Facebook,” he says.
But is he?
According to Facebook, more than half of the site’s users are not in college, and the number of active users doubles every six months. What originally began as a means for college students to communicate has spiraled into a worldwide frenzy of poking and wall writing.
The site further opens the communication net waves to the older age groups. Parents, employers and professors use the medium for networking utilities. After Logsdon’s success with the group, he encouraged some MU theatre professors to activate accounts to stay in touch with students and become more involved with the public.
David Crespy, 46, is one of these professors. As of last spring, he has been part of the Facebook community. Although he claims to have a boring profile, it’s full of pictures from his trip to Greece, a YouTube video, his allegiance to Rutgers football, wall posts from friends and group memberships, including “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T Colbert.”
He also maintains a MySpace account, which he visits less frequently.
“Mostly I’ve used it as a place where people can see what I’m doing, and for family photos, and eventually for productions I’m directing and other projects,” he says. “It’s a great way to be in touch with folks and have them see what you’re up to.”
Facebook is also a favorite of Rahman’s 16-year-old daughter, whom she says is typically vigilant about updating her profile.
“When her boyfriend is not available to talk, she can always check Facebook to see what kinds of changes he has made there to help her gauge his affection for her,” she says.
Brekhus, though not on Facebook himself, will often use his wife’s account to check what people are saying about his recent work. He enjoys the inconspicuous aspect of doing it under someone else’s name, he says with a laugh.
The oppositional sentiment might be there initially among the older academic crowd, but Brekhus says the next generation of professors, which includes students currently in graduate school, will be apt not only to have accounts but also to use them for practical, educational purposes.
“It will happen slowly over time,” he says. “As with technology in general, I think you kind of have age gaps where there are a lot of professors who aren’t necessarily on it because it isn’t familiar to them.”
Although Facebook might morph and twist and develop as it has up to this point, Smythe says social networking has for all definitive purposes become a staple in online culture. “The sheer volume of sites and messages posted to the sites would suggest that the phenomenon is more than a passing fad,” Smythe says. “There is probably not enough internal coherence or cohesion to warrant calling it a social movement, but it does reflect a shift in the way we communicate with one another that is quite remarkable, and I believe, enduring in its consequences.” V

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