(Appeared as front page feature in Fairfield-Sun newspaper 9/30/10)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – “Initially, I avoided Facebook,” said Fairfield resident Eileen Weber, 40, asked recently about her interaction with the social networking site, adding, “I thought it was just a meat sheet for people looking to hook up.” But, then, a couple of people asked why she wasn’t on it and she decided to check it out. “The first day I signed up, I had 30 people friend me. It makes you feel like you don’t have to be the cheerleader or the captain of the basketball team to be that popular.”
Weber is one of over 500 million active users of the online service that has joined since Mark Zuckerberg and a few of his Harvard University classmates launched Facebook back in February 2004. On October 1, “The Social Network”, a movie about the founders of the website, debuts in theaters nationwide. Just what is the fascination with this online interface, how are local Fairfielders using it and how do they feel about it?
Zuckerberg’s initial site concept was along the lines of “Hot or Not”, essentially featuring photos of students from nine houses on campus. Two would be shown at a time and visitors challenged to decide which was “hotter”. From these sophomoric beginnings, Facebook has become the leading social networking site, leaving once popular MySpace in the dust.
Leslie Marshall, 44, aptly sums up the reason Fairfielders primarily rely on Facebook today. “I use it to connect with people I haven’t talked to in years.”
Others, like Pamela Ortiz, 49, use it keep current with friends and family that are far away. “It makes connecting with my kids in Hawaii, wherein there’s a six-hour time difference between us, more convenient. When we can’t Skype, I send a message or write on their wall.”
For Jenn Colford, 40, Facebook allows her to quickly check how her friends are doing. “I can do a 20-second glance and be updated on what’s going on with my friends’ lives without doing anything.”
The younger set, like Evan Lauterborn, 14, a Fairfield Ludlowe High School sophomore and the lead singer/guitarist in a band, utilize Facebook for many additional reasons. “It’s great for making plans, getting homework details and promoting my band.” Lauterborn’s band, in fact, has created a dedicated “Fan” page, to which friends and followers can subscribe and receive updates about the group’s activities.
Almost all local users agree that having the ability to post and send photographs through the service is an advantage. “I love viewing others’ photos, especially during the holidays,” said Kathleen Tempini, 55. Many users’ pages house whole albums of photos, which are often catalogued with regard to the event or occasion to which they relate – a vacation, a night out, a birthday celebration, a family gathering, etc. In effect, they become a history of a life.
A Language Unto Its Own
There is, without a doubt, a certain language and favorite expressions that Facebook users have adopted, which seem universally commonplace. Perhaps the most popular expression is “LOL”, or “Laughing Out Loud”. A more emphatic version is “LMAO”, or “Laughing My A** Off”. These are used in response to amusing comments and, often, startling images.
Other terms express dismay, surprise and disappointment. For instance, “WTF” (What The F***) is used to question something that is puzzling or to express outrage about a particular action or slight. A variation is “OMG” (Oh My God).
Quick symbols, often taken from the world of text messaging, are also employed. These include “:-)” (smiley face), “:-(“ (sad face), “:-p” (silly face with tongue sticking out), “:-o” (surprised face) and “;-)” (flirtatious winking face).
A Virtual Community of Friends
Some users are very conservative about the number of Facebook friends they keep. A 40-year-old prep school teacher who preferred to remain anonymous maintains just 40 friends. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Lauterborn has over 700 friends and claims to know all of them. On average, local users have about 150 contacts.
Ortiz, who has 210 FB friends at present, likes to look over her list occasionally. “I try to figure out who I could delete but always end up keeping all of them!”
To add a friend to one’s Friend List, one has a few access options. One can simply plug a friend’s name into a search window and, if they successfully find the right person, can simply Friend Request them. Often, though, due to online privacy issues and to keep users from being harassed, Facebook may not allow the connection if it is suspected that the “requester” does not personally know the “requestee”. In this case, one can send the user a message asking if they would like to connect and to Friend Request them back.
Facebook offers a host of features that allow users to maximize their experience and interaction with each other. In addition to posting photos, subscribers can post other media like video clips, event notices and links to online content.
Photos, which can be uploaded from both land-based and mobile devices, often include those of friends and family, or sometimes a celebrity or amusing image. “Sharing pictures with my kids in Hawaii makes me feel a little more connected with them,” said Ortiz. Photos can be “tagged”, meaning that specific people can be identified by name via a caption simply by zeroing in and providing an identification.
Videos tend to be established content, like a music performance or televised screen clip, often pulled from YouTube. Occasionally, you’ll see something more homegrown like a dog dancing on its hind legs to the Mexican Hat Dance or toddler doing samba moves.
Event notices typically include day/date/time, host, location and a brief description. “I like to keep updated on upcoming events, mostly concerts,” said Ortiz, an avid music lover.
Links can be to any content available online, from articles and scientific literature to content clips and photos.
Another favorite feature is the birthday reminder, which lists the birthdays of people on your Friend list and gives one the opportunity to send a greeting.
Is Facebook Educational?
Facebook serves a helpful, educational purpose for some, but is just an amusement for most… and often a hindrance. On the positive side, Tempini said, “We have forums and discussions on work related topics.” Conversely, Lauterborn remarked, “I don’t find it educational at all, simply entertaining. In fact, sometimes it’s distracting.”
Had Your Facebook Fix?
Some can take or leave Facebook and say they have other options to stay connected. But others say they miss it when they haven’t been on in a while. “I did miss Facebook when I was away on vacation and had no reception at our resort for a week,” confessed Ortiz. Echoed Tempini, “I do miss it if I have not been on it for a day.”
Local users check on their pages anywhere from once a day to a couple times a month, with the average being a few times a week. Tempini is hooked, “I check at least 3 to 4 times a day for 10-15 minutes each time.”
Practical Facebook Applications
To most Fairfield-based users of Facebook, the service is an entertainment. But some have found it very helpful in terms of monitoring a child’s activities, checking on someone’s background and even helping avoid social isolation.
“My motive for establishing a Facebook account was to check and see what my daughter Devlyn was doing on there,” said Pamela Ortiz. “I told her if she didn’t accept my friend request, I would take her laptop away.” Mom Kathleen Tempini used it in a similar manner, saying, “I am definitely not a snoop, but did discover by a “tag” that my daughter had pierced her lip the first week of college.”
Before hiring a college student as a babysitter, Fran Milici, mother of two elementary school-aged daughters, did a little background checking. “I figured I’d go to the place that could possibly reveal issues of concern a parent would have when hiring a person to watch her children. I was pleased with what I saw/read and she was hired.”
For Ortiz, Facebook is a great comfort when she is feeling isolated or tied down at home. “I enjoy staying in contact with friends that I found on People Search, whom I otherwise may never have found,” said Ortiz. “And I feel like I’m socializing at times when I may not be able to get out of the house.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, profiled by actor Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”, a film set to debut in theaters October 1 about the social networking phenomenon, could not have imagined the variety of utility and popularity the service would achieve. And whether you have a positive or indifferent opinion about Facebook, one thing’s clear. It’s a fixture that’s going to be around for a while.