Facebook 101
Brian Gongol

What is Facebook?

Facebook is a "social networking" site that makes it easy to share pictures, links, and news about yourself with anyone you identify as a "friend".

How did Facebook come about?

Colleges used to sell books to incoming freshmen with photos and brief biographical details of the arriving freshman class, and these were sometimes called "facebooks". Some students at Harvard decided to try building their own interactive online version in 2003/04. It was later expanded to include other universities, and eventually the public at large.

Why would anyone use it?

What should I know before using it?

Facebook is aggressively transparent about anything you share. In other words, you have to take deliberate steps to obtain any sense of privacy, and the founder has repeatedly demonstrated in both words and practice that he thinks most of what you share with anyone should be visible to everyone.

What precautions should I take when using Facebook?

Assume that everything you share in any form on Facebook, no matter how you adjust your privacy settings, could be visible at any time on a digital billboard along the side of the Interstate or on Ingersoll Avenue.

What does it mean when someone places a "friend request"?

That person is asking to join your personal "social network". Have a deliberate litmus test established in your mind well before you start adding anyone as a friend. For example: "To be my Facebook friend, we must have gone to school together, worked together, or had a drink together." Apply that litmus test consistently, and don't apologize for it. You do not have to accept every friend request, nor should you. Some people place random friend requests, and some just want to be your "friend" in order to get access to your valuable personal information.

What does it mean to "like" something on Facebook?

Businesses, schools, bands, and other organizations set up "fan pages" and other sub-sites on Facebook, which you can "like". This endorsement is a way of telling other people about the things you enjoy. You can also "like" friends' pictures and status updates, too. Many people use this as a way to help themselves build a sense of identity. But it also gives Facebook (and its sponsors) very valuable information about you and your preferences.

Is there any danger in "liking" things or sharing other information on Facebook?

In principle, you're just telling your friends about things you like, just as you might over dinner. In practice, when you do it on Facebook, it's a far more public act -- with no ultimate guarantee of your privacy -- and it's used to build a valuable database of information on your tastes and preferences. That database is ultimately what Facebook, as a company, has as an asset. You have no reliable guarantee that your personal information won't someday be turned over to third parties for money, no matter what your privacy agreement may say today. Again, that database is Facebook's primary asset.

Should I share pictures on Facebook?

Only if you wouldn't mind if those same pictures showed up on a billboard along the side of the Interstate. Do not over-share pictures of children on Facebook. It may be a very convenient way to share baby photos and snapshots of the first day of school with your family, but sharing them on Facebook also places those pictures on the Internet. If even one of your Facebook "friends" turns out not to be the trustworthy individual you thought they were, those pictures could end up falling into the wrong hands. Never use your children or grandchildren in your Facebook profile photo. You are probably very proud of them, but keep that pride off Facebook. Your profile photo is visible to the entire world, and you don't want a potential abductor using Facebook to target your family.

Is there other information I should keep off Facebook?

Travel plans, details of your daily routine, major purchases, and anything else that might be of value to a potential stalker, burglar, or other criminal. Wait until you're home to share pictures of your vacation, and keep the details of your daily commute to yourself.

Is Facebook here to stay?

For a while, yes. In the long term, probably not. Facebook has to constantly change its look and style and features to keep some of its existing users happy. But those changes are often confusing to new users, and aggravating to existing users who liked the way things used to be. Other "social networks" like MySpace and countless chat rooms have come and gone over the years, and Facebook probably won't escape the same fate -- which is all the more reason to use it only in moderation.

Only in moderation?

Facebook can be an enormous time sink. You simply don't need to know every mundane detail of the lives of everyone you know. It's also caused more than a few marital disputes and even divorces, when the seemingly harmless act of looking up an old flame became something more. And even though Facebook offers games, you're probably better off just doing things in real life than becoming addicted to Mafia Wars.