Facebook much?

Alexander the Great famously conquered the known world by the time he was 32 years of age.

Now, nearly 2,500 years later, Mark Zuckerberg (born 1984) seems to have done the same thing—and has beaten young Alexander by a full seven years.

I know that Facebook is not exactly the most creative topic choice, but I just can’t believe the way it has infiltrated every component of daily life, at least for many of us. I think the phenomenon is particularly striking because I have watched it grow from nothing, and remember what life was like “back then.”

Facebook was launched from a Harvard dorm room in February 2004, just as I was finishing up my junior year of high school. At first access was limited only to Harvard students, and when I became one (by the grace of God or the Harvard Admissions Committee, whichever is more powerful) in the spring of 2005, I signed up, too. It was Year 1 AF (After Facebook), and little did I know what we would be seeing in Year 6.

If I had to sit down now and remember all the changes that came along the way, I’m not sure I could do it. I remember that it was considered a big deal when, in my freshman year of college, Facebook was opened up to non-Ivy League schools. Truly, we thought the rabble was about to descend upon us, but all was well. Then, access was extended to anyone with a valid academic e-mail address, followed by high school students, followed by (gasp!) the general public. Those of us who had always appreciated the separation from the hoi polloi of MySpace and other social networking sites were aghast.

In the meantime, other changes were taking place. At some point, we acquired the ability to upload photos and, still later, tag friends therein. Early in my sophomore year of college (Year 2), NewsFeed was introduced, and we were subjected to the decidedly unpleasant experience of learning what every one of our friends was doing and thinking all of the bloody time. This was a development that did not bode well for those of us who appreciate peace and quiet.

I remember other trivial tweaks along the way. There was the appearance of the “Like” button, which (perhaps not surprisingly) spawned a campaign for a “Dislike” button shortly after its arrival. There was the ultimate disappearance of the “is” at the beginning of every status, which allowed all of us to express ourselves more freely and (though not as much as I would have liked) more grammatically. Perhaps most excitingly for many, a whole series of applications was launched which allows anyone to travel the world, shoot gangsters, and milk cows—and all from the comfort of your local boring lecture!

Someday I look forward to seeing the look of shock on my kids’ faces when I tell them that I remember a time when Facebook did not facilitate Poking… and the look of deeper horror when I make mention of those dark, traumatic years when Facebook did not exist at all.

What has surprised me the most in the past year or two is the way that Facebook has completely infiltrated our culture.

Take, for example, our constantly-developing grammar and vocabulary, which is daily being bombarded by shifts in the sands of the Facebook world. The word “friend,” once exclusively a noun, has become a verb: you do not “befriend” someone on Facebook or “add her as a friend,” you simply “friend” her. I thought I had resisted this perverse grammatical trend until someone pointed out to me recently that I do it, too.

Or take the word “Facebook” itself. Not even a word five years ago, it quickly became a household noun, and has now mutated into a verb: to “Facebook” someone, depending on context, can mean anything from looking him up briefly to sending him a message to engaging in deep investigation—which now has a (presumably hyphenated) term of its own: “Facebook-stalking.”

And, lest you think I use the word “stalking” lightly, consider the case of a woman who was recently burglarized while she was out: the burglar had read of her plans for the evening on Facebook, where she had posted them shortly before stepping out the door.

Of course, most Facebook-driven scenarios are not nearly so dramatic as that, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to people talk! I spent some time in a Starbucks this afternoon, ostensibly doing work but unable to help overhearing some of the animated conversations taking place all around me. (No, I am not an eavesdropper; some people just speak too loudly, that’s all…)

If I were a betting man, I would wager at very high odds that you cannot listen to a college student’s conversation for more than ten minutes without hearing some mention of Facebook. (I’d lower the number of minutes, but I’m really not a betting man.)

The amount of thought we put into the world that revolves around this simple social networking site is completely incredible to me. I realize that I’m only feeding the fire by devoting today’s post to the topic (indeed, a sort of catch-22), but my point is this: we are a generation (and more than a generation!) obsessed.

Are you in a relationship? It’s not the real deal unless it’s listed on Facebook, which in modern parlance makes it (unoriginally) “Facebook official.” Did you go somewhere amazing for spring break? No, you didn’t—not unless you post the pictures for all to see. Have you heard the absolute latest most intimate news about all 1,367 of your closest friends? Certainly not… unless you’ve been keeping up on your NewsFeed.

And let’s not even begin to get into the question of initiating a romance via the social networking site. Did he ask you out in a Facebook message? What a cad! Did he write on your wall instead? Points for guts, but not for class. Did she “friend” you before or after she mentioned dinner? And if she did, does that relegate you to the infamous “friend” category? Did she neglect to call and then contact you via Facebook instead? Not a great first date, man. What does it mean if she’s “married” to her best friend? Single? Not? What should we think about a girl who’s looking for “whatever I can get,” and is the standard different for a guy? And what about that event he invited you to? Do you think he sent an invitation to everyone, or marked the checkbox especially for you?

These were the sorts of conversations I heard swirling about me as I sat at Starbucks, and every day brings more of the same. I wonder if someday soon we’ll be unable to conduct an ordinary (I won’t say intelligent) conversation without reference to the site. Already, I notice that I’ve made the transition to explaining Facebook after mentioning it to assuming that people know what I mean. At this point, if you don’t, you’ve got bigger problems.

To be completely honest, my words are somewhat in jest. Facebook has a number of perks to it, and I certainly value it as a way of keeping in touch with far-flung friends. In addition, it’s humbling to think that someone who lived just a few doors down from me (and is only three years older) is currently one of the most famous recent graduates of Harvard University, and all because he knew how much people just wanted to connect.

For the most part, though, I worry about a society that seems to be beginning to forget how to interact without the aid of this social tool. I worry when I see people joking about their own procrastination on Facebook while refusing to acknowledge that they may have a real problem. I worry when I see people posting extremely sensitive and emotional status updates on Facebook while neglecting to seek real help.

Don’t get me wrong: Zuckerberg has hit upon a good thing here, and it’s likely to be with us for a while. I value Facebook for the efficiency and connectivity it provides.

At the same time, though, I hope that those of us remember a time before Year 0 will remind today’s children that it is, in fact, possible to have and make friends, travel to new places, participate in a real conversation, like things, poke people, and even be in a relationship…

… all without ever logging in.

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