Eye Opening

The Baltimore Sun

As Holly Hosler waded through the deluge of "random things" lists on Facebook, residue of a phenomenon that captivated the social networking site for a few recent weeks, she discovered in her friends' notes an incredibly human, incredibly personal collage - the witty, the poignant, the embarrassing.

And yet, she paused for a long moment before making her own list.

"I kind of want to put this out there," Hosler, a 32-year-old marketing coordinator with Baltimore's LifeBridge Health thought to herself. "But not really. I don't know."

Ultimately Hosler joined thousands upon thousands of other Facebook members and created a "25 Random Things About Me" post, letting her 182 network friends, and the countless friends of those friends, know that she used to read the encyclopedia page by page, that she could once sink an eight ball like nobody's business, that she's doubted her faith.

Hosler barely edited herself, choosing to bare her soul not only to her friends, classmates and co-workers, but to the Internet.

"My mother is afraid to even buy things online. She'll be like, 'I don't want to put anything out there,' " Hosler says. "I don't really have the same kind of privacy concerns. ... Sometimes I want to put things out there just to spark conversation."

After years of online skittishness, people, as evidenced by the communal sharefest that was "25 Random Things," have largely shelved those initial misgivings, trading them in for an easy wireless intimacy. In the most public of forums, they're talking about sex, posting their cell phone numbers, pointing to videos of their children and revealing health problems.

This near-complete about-face in how people consider the Internet amazes Zeynep Tufecki, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The shift has been so forceful, she thinks it has rewritten the definitions of "public" and "private."

"It used to be that 'private' was intimate and invisible. But what we have here, on Facebook in particular, is intimate and visible," Tufecki says. "It's a public/private mixture that we've never had, and it's turned all sorts of things upside down."

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the number of adults who belong to online social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn has more than quadrupled in the past four years. About 60 percent of them, the organization adds, take steps to protect the privacy of their profile information.

Even so, thousands of people became extremely upset a week ago when Facebook tweaked its service agreement, telling its members, in essence, that they'd have less control of their information than they might have thought (after protests, it went back to the old agreement).

Michael Stefanone, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo, is fascinated by how conflicted people are as they build their new online worlds. They want to unload all of their secrets online, but they don't want to be reminded of how public they just made that information.

"Irrational" is his word for it.

"People are certainly upset when they're cued to actively think about the public nature of this information," Stefanone says. "But they still engage in the behavior. I'm not sure how to explain it. ... Except that it's framed as acceptable, normal and desirable. That's the thing - sharing like this is seen as a good thing."

The more time people spend with technology, he says, the more comfortable they feel. And when one's friends and family are all doing it, too, that only adds to the feeling.

As Bucknell University management professor Jordi Comas puts it, "People aren't trusting Facebook, they're trusting the other people who use Facebook. When I see people around me using it, it gives it legitimacy and signals this is a community I can trust."

And the thing people quickly learn about Facebook is that if you're going to do it all, you've got to dive in with both feet. You've got to reveal yourself, or people won't be able to find you. You've got to reveal more, or you'll lose people's attention. Your friend count becomes social currency.

Stefanone, who studies social media, has found a direct link between people's propensity for intimacy in social networking and how much reality TV they watch.

People who watch a lot of reality shows, he's found, spend more time on Facebook, have more network friends, are more "promiscuous" in friending and more prolific in sharing photos of themselves.

"Average people are being cast on these shows and they're quasi-celebrities. They're giving interviews and confessionals, sharing who in North America they've slept with and who they hate," Stefanone says. "On Facebook, people can very easily enact that behavior. To be seen is to exist."

Even Hosler in Baltimore acknowledges there's something addictive and delicious in the attention that comes after, say, a juicy status update.

"There is something when you post information - it gives you some social cachet," says Hosler. "I don't think people do it deliberately to gain social cachet. It's a very subconscious thing - part of being human."

Christine Ngo, a social networking expert with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, thinks the "me, me, me" aspect to exercises like "25 Random Things" helps a generation that feels lost and insecure gain a foothold in the world - or to feel as if it has.

"The few I glanced at were pretty personal," she says. "Putting these things out there on the Web seems like a bad idea to me. Sharing information [like] 'I got drunk for the first time when I was 10' isn't something I would want to say to the world."

Toi Troutman, a Los Angeles-based publicist with a MySpace page for her company, also says the sharing can be "quite therapeutic" and that "primal nosiness" is enough to sustain the trend - if not the foundation on which Facebook exists.

As Facebook and other social media sites gain even more acceptance, questions of "how much is too much" will only multiply, Tufecki predicts.

"You either close yourself up or you open yourself up - but to the whole world," she says. "That is the problem and that is hard to get your mind wrapped around. I don't blame people for being torn and acting in inconsistent ways."

Still, she thinks social media will keep driving people to greater degrees of intimacy. And she thinks eventually it will trump the modern isolation that's grown from suburban living and scattered families, where individuals generally keep to themselves. Facebook's world is more like village life - where everyone can see what everyone else is up to.

That's Facebook's village with 1.5 million inhabitants.

Which is where the denial comes in handy. When all those people post updates about their relationship, they're not thinking about the reality of how many people might see it; they're thinking they're letting a few good friends in on some news.

"It's not as if I'm saying this on a street corner to the faceless public," Comas says. "I feel like I'm in the warm embrace of this community."

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