Social media has been good to me for over 15 years

Today’s social media is both very different from the social internet in the 1990s and eerily similar. I’ve often equated twitter with the chat rooms I frequented back in 1995-1999ish. Twitter is like a 90s chatroom on steroids. It just wasn’t called social media at the time.

For a few months in 1996, I used my parents computer to log on to the freenet - in the days of dialup, freenet was the equivalent to using dialup now - pretty painful. There was probably computer access provided at my college, but it never even occurred to me to use it. I wasn’t there long anyway. I transferred to Florida State in the fall of 1996 and discovered the bliss of using a T1 connection at the school library, which seemed to be overflowing with computers.

I spent hours at various libraries - checking email, installing ICQ over and over again (IT wiped it out all the time), playing in the chat rooms and surfing the web. (Oh, yes, we surfed. Does anyone say that anymore?)

The best part about those chat rooms?

They introduced me to Sam, my first online friend in Canada. We were in touch as recently as 5 years ago. If I emailed her today, we’d have a great time catching up.

Mark, a guy who was originally from Ottawa but has mostly lived in the U.S. since I’ve known him.

Shawn, whose 11 year old son hacked into my computer while we were in an ICQ real-time chat. (Shawn was so mad when I told him, but I thought it was funny - too smart for his own good, that one!)

Anne, Shawn’s wife who wasn’t nearly as involved, but was always so nice to chat with.

Ryan, who I met in Orlando (after getting a whopper of a speeding ticket…ouch) and we did 3 Disney parks in one day - good times!

I met a couple of others in-person whose names have faded from my memory. I even exchanged letters with some, which I recognize as being rather odd at a time when email was becoming so prevalent. I used to chat with a guy from Russia who would catch me during my work day - very late for him - just so he could practice his English. Then there was the guy from Australia who was severely epileptic and admitted to drinking regularly and too much - a fairly big no-no with his drug regimen. He would email his writing to me to read and he was SO bloody talented. If I remembered his name, I’d be doing searches on Amazon for his book(s). Surely he’s been published by now.

People wonder why I take the time to use “social media”. It’s because I’ve been using it for all of my adult life. It’s because I’ve met so many wonderful people through it - including my husband. I’ve connected with people all over the world through the Internet for a myriad of reasons.

And it’s been good. Really, really good.

I don't love Facebook; I just like what it's done for me

I live approximately 1,500 miles from my hometown, Tallahassee, Florida. All my family still live in the U.S. and I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I’d like. I left behind a lifetime’s worth of friendships that are hard to maintain over time and distance.

Just when I thought I’d probably never see or hear from my long distance friends, along comes Facebook and my friends list exploded overnight. 

I joined Facebook in summer of 2007. At first, I really didn’t use it much. I had one friend - the person who invited me - for quite a while. After making my first connection with someone I hadn’t seen in years, I began to see the value of this thing called Facebook. I started seeking people out - searching for names of people I hadn’t seen since high school, wanting to know where they were and what they were doing, how their lives were going.

There were two people I was almost desperate to reconnect with. But every attempt to find them was fruitless, either because the search results were so abundant that I didn’t have a prayer of a chance of picking the right one, or because they hadn’t signed up to the time-sucking vampire that is Facebook.

It turns out that, among my oldest friends, I was the early-adopter of this particular social media addiction. The first of the two people I was eagerly waiting to hear from popped up about a year after I joined. Dawn and I lost touch because of email address changes and technology fails in the form of lost data. Her first message to me was, “You have a child!” That made me smile, even though it was sad that I didn’t get to share that news with her a lot sooner. Dawn was a very dear friend I met when we both showed up to our first studio class in the same jacket. We were both voice students in the music education program at Florida State University. We bonded over our identical jackets and eventually shared many classes together - the best being grad student Tracy’s Music Theory class.

The second person I was anxious to find on Facebook finally showed up last week. She and I spent our last five years in school together. We met in 8th grade when she came to my school new. We were both sort of anomolies - she was the new student and I was the home-schooled student who came for band. (Yeah, I was a band nerd like that.) We were BFFs through all four years of high school. She was a majorette and I was on the flag corps. We had lively and respectful discussions about our differing beliefs during our many sleepovers - as well as a few fairly embarrassing writing sessions. (I hope we burned those notebooks so our kids don’t get their hands on them.)

When I saw her name pop up on my news feed on Facebook, I wanted to do cartwheels. It has been almost 10 years since we had any contact and I’ve missed her very much. I’m so happy to have her back in my life again. Every attempt I made to find her previously was unsuccessful, but I knew we’d cross paths somehow, someday.

Facebook gets a lot of flack - and rightly so - for it’s cavalier attitude about privacy and not knowing how to make things opt-in instead of opt-out. But I can’t regret that I’m on there, nor will I delete my account anytime soon. Because, to me, it’s too valuable to be able to connect with people who are dear to me on a regular basis in the small ways that I get to connect with them on Facebook. Several of my family members are on there now as well and that’s been so exciting for me.

Certain people wonder why I love blogging and social media as much as I do. Well, this is a huge part of why I love it and am so involved in it. It’s all about the connections I can maintain with people I don’t get to see anymore. For me, Facebook and my blog in particular have significantly decreased the distance I feel from my loved ones and I hope they feel closer to me as well.

So, what about you? What do you get from social networks you’re involved in? 

No way! We’re supposed to expect privacy on the Internet!?

Lately there’s been a lot of hoopla about Facebook’s privacy policies and the direction that they seem to be taking. I’ve seen warnings in friends’ status updates several times and I definitely appreciate being made aware of what’s going on through their updates and articles like this one that one of my Facebook friends posted from Wired. I think it’s imperative for everyone who joins any site on the Web to take personal responsibility for knowing what these services are doing with the data they obtain through their site. Thanks to my friends’ warnings, I usually go and tighten up my privacy settings every time Facebook decides to loosen them without my permission. 

But at the same time, I look at my profile and I feel somewhat indifferent to their efforts to share my “personal data”. I don’t really care because I don’t actually give Facebook much personal data that they can do anything with. I had to agree with this post on Twitter because Facebook isn’t the only Internet giant with access to our personal data – AND Facebook requires you to sign up for it and enter the data, whereas some others, e.g., Google, just acquires it whether you know it or not:

Matthew Ingram also wrote an interesting post on GigaOM about Facebook’s privacy issues; his perspective seems to be pretty similar to mine.

Am I apathetic about the issue? Not at all. I’ve just made a personal policy decision that I don’t voluntarily put information on Facebook or any other Web site that isn’t already easily found elsewhere without much effort – or that I’m not fully comfortable sharing with the world. Because even on a site like Facebook that requires a membership, I feel it’s extremely important to remain circumspect because no matter how secure MY password is, it doesn’t mean that my friends have a secure password, too.

My Facebook profile identifies my gender (I don’t know many men named Karen, so that’s a fairly safe assumption as soon as someone sees my name), my birthday without the year, my family members who are also on Facebook, my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida and my current city of Ottawa, Ontario. I’ve also listed my political and religious leanings. The one thing that may not be easily found on the Internet already is my high school, but I’m not going to take that off because it allows me to connect with my former classmates. I don’t store any of my personal contact information on Facebook other than my email address and that isn’t accessible even to my friends – the ones who need to email me know how to do so. Not that my email address is a big secret, which is evidenced by the exorbitant amount of spam I delete all the time.

I’ve secured my photos so that only my friends have access to them, though I do send public photo album links to my father, who isn’t on Facebook. I know he’s not going to share them with sketchy people, if he shares anyone at all. Honestly, if I heard that my photos were being used by someone in Prague for advertising, I would wonder what they were thinking, unless its pictures of my son – he’s adorable and very photogenic, so I could understand why they’d want his pictures. Oddly, I decided to lock down my albums after “unfriending” an individual (yes, one single person).

Frankly, there is absolutely nothing on my Facebook account that anyone should really care that much about. I’m also not connected to hundreds or thousands of “friends” who are interested in any piece of my life. I figure it’s the major bloggers and celebrities who may have need for some concern. The Globe and Mail article above does tell the story of an average woman whose images were taken and Photoshopped, but I don’t see that becoming the norm. It’s weird and creepy, yes, but mostly I just wonder what’s wrong with the person who did it that they don’t have better things to do with their time.

Dan Yoder at Gizmodo is encouraging everyone to bail on Facebook because they are “unethical” and have waged “war on privacy” – and he isn’t so kind about Matthew Ingram’s views. While I don’t feel concern about my personal data being on Facebook, I certainly can’t blame anyone for deciding to leave. The points Dan Yoder makes are mostly valid, but my personal Internet use policy is that I make an effort not to put anything out there anywhere that I’m going to regret later – whether it’s personal information, pictures or comments, etc. In my opinion, protection of my personal information is MY responsibility. That’s why I don’t save it in Facebook.

Facebook is a perfect example of an Internet service that people need to adopt personal policies for how they will use it. Bad policy would be something like posting your address and telephone number in your profile and then announcing that you’re going on vacation. (I’ve seen people do this - don’t know if their profiles are open or not, but it always makes me cringe!! Actually, I cringe whenever someone posts it whether their address is on FB or not! It’s not like it’s hard to find an address - as mentioned in the Twitter comment above.) Matt and I discussed early on after Brandon was born that we wouldn’t post pictures of Brandon with a bare bum. Sure, it’s cute, but we aren’t comfortable with it and we also have to think about what he’ll be comfortable with 10, 15, 20 years from now. His generation’s lives will be chronicled on the Internet for all to see, but for a number of years he won’t even have a say in what is posted about him. I see it as my job to be cautious on his behalf.

Every person using the Internet has to decide what they are comfortable with and never deviate from it – whether the site is restricted access or completely open. Unfortunately, once something is posted on the Web, there is absolutely no guarantee that when you hit the delete button it will go away forever. The Web doesn’t work that way, no matter how much people wish it did. Do I agree with the way Facebook operates? Absolutely not, but I’m stickin’ with the devil I know for now. The next one could be far worse!


Special thanks to Amber Strocel for her recent Thoughts on Internet Privacy post at I re-used the Globe and Mail article she referenced and I must give her some of the credit for kick-starting my own thoughts on this subject.