Facebook - an Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Facebook - an Introduction

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Facebook - with quotes about it ranging from 'Facebook destroys children's social lives' to 'the place where I found a match made in cyberspace', Facebook is always going to be a controversial website.

An Introduction

According to the makers of the site, Facebook is a 'social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them'.

The primary feature on Facebook is the ability to invite friends and to be invited as a friend by others. When this is done, although it is an ongoing process that regular users will never finish, accepted friends are able to see each other's 'walls' and 'status'. A wall is an individual user's page where any event mentioning them will appear, such as photos including them or their own status. A status is simply what the user has written, primarily to describe whatever is going on in the user's life at that moment. Friends can then comment on the status and so begin a conversation. It is easy to invite friends; simply put their name into the search bar at the top of any page or ask Facebook to look inside any e-mailing contact list that you have. If they have a Facebook account they will appear and you can send a friend invitation. If they say yes, then they become your friend and each of you can see the other's information.

A Short History

Facebook was established in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his roommates Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes while students at Harvard University. Initially only for use by Harvard students, it spread to all Ivy League Universities in the USA. As Facebook evolved and grew in stature, it spread to most of the universities across the world; any student could start an account by listing a valid academic e-mail address. Today Facebook is available to anyone aged 13 or over, providing they have access to a computer. At the time of its founding, both Myspace and Bebo were starting to be used by large numbers of people, primarily young adults and teenagers. Facebook initially struggled to overcome the advantages of these already entrenched social sites, as users were unwilling to change sites and start building their networks afresh; however by 2009, Facebook was ranked as the most widely-used social networking site with a clear margin over the second most widely used, Myspace.

The Home Page

This is where all recent data posted by friends of a Facebook user can be seen. The Home Page includes any new status posted; photos that have been identified as containing any friend of the user; groups that have been joined by Facebook friends and information about friends using their applications (see below). Changes in the information about any user are also posted here, such as that of relationship status or contact details. Any of these pieces of information can be commented on here, as this is where the heart and soul of Facebook can be considered to be: this is where information is primarily shared. The homepage also allows users too busy to comment on new information to simply say they 'like' it. So far there is no plan for a 'dislike' option, although a large group (see below) is clamouring for just such an feature. Commenting on information simply requires a user to say they wish to comment and write in a reasonably short message (under 500 characters).

Basic Features

Facebook has many features that allow users to customise their pages. Here are a few that Facebook itself supports and are available to all users.

  • Facebook chat - online users are able to see which of their invited friends are online at any moment. From these a conversation may be started using Facebook chat - a simple instant messenger device similar to MSN Messenger.

  • Photo uploading - one of the features that users often give as the reason for preferring Facebook over other social networking sites is the ease of uploading photos and videos. Any medium-sized JPEG picture file (smaller then 5MB) can be uploaded, at which point it can be viewed and commented on by any user.

  • Facebook mailing - Facebook has an internal mail system that allows users to send messages to each other that cannot be viewed by other users.

The Competitors

There are two primary competitors with Facebook: MySpace and Bebo.

MySpace

The largest rival, MySpace was the largest social networking site in 2006 before being surpassed by Facebook in 2009. It shares a number of features with Facebook, including: Blurbs that are similar to the information pages on Facebook; a Comments system; a groups feature; MySpaceIM that is almost identical to Facebook chat and a limited ability to upload photos. However, MySpace differs from Facebook in several crucial ways. All users are able to edit their page's appearance by writing in HTML script; this has often led to users' pages malfunctioning due to lack of skill with HTML. It is considered harder to upload and display photos on MySpace although an ability to edit photos online can compensate for this; MySpace also has a forum system that users can post to, with messages deleted after ten days.

Bebo (Blog Early, Blog Often)

While Bebo is similar to the other social networking sites, it focuses more (perhaps unsurprisingly) on blogging, that is, the communication between Bebo users rather than enjoying the site itself. Bebo users can also customise their pages more than Facebook users by using modules. Modules that can be added include a comment function similar to Facebook but also a quiz function where visitors can decide on a question posed by the user. Direct links to third party sites such as YouTube are also possible. Photos can be uploaded although albums are limited to a maximum of 48 photos. Bebo has a better security reputation than MySpace and Facebook, although in May 2008 New Zealand users were able to access accounts of users in other countries. Bebo however were able to fix this problem within a few days.

h2g2

While not normally considered to be a competitor to Facebook, h2g2 has many similar characteristics, though it predates Facebook by five years. You can talk to each other (albeit more slowly on h2g2), you can join groups and you can organise events. The main advantage Facebook has over h2g2 is the ability to easily upload photos. The main advantage h2g2 has over Facebook is the far superior quality of conversation and information. One difference is that Facebook is primarily used to contact friends that are already known to the user in the real world, whereas h2g2 allows users to make completely new friends.

Applications

The normal method for users to customise and enjoy Facebook is the ability to add applications to their account. Written by individual users or companies, they are free to use and are downloaded onto Facebook. There are many thousands of applications that are sorted into basic categories including: games, relationships, business and many others.

Here are a few examples:

  • Games - Minigolf, Mob wars, and Bejeweled Blitz (warning - some games have been known to cause dangerous dreams concerning falling crystals)
  • Relationships - Weddings, Pass a drink and Circle for Mums
  • Business - My Digital Store and I am Ebay

A full list of applications can be found at the Facebook Application Directory. Be warned, however, that Facebook does not supervise third party sites that host these applications.

Groups

Within Facebook there are tens of thousands of groups that cover many areas from politics to religious matters to pets and animals. Membership in these groups ranges from tens of millions to a mere handful of people. The reasons for this disparity can be found in what the group concerns. The largest number of people can be found, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the group called 'The Largest Facebook Group Ever', a group so large that it has crashed Facebook's servers twice. On the other hand a handful of people can form a group simply to commemorate a small event.

Any Facebook user can make a group within which photos, events and news can be posted. The creator of a group can determine whether users have to be invited to join the group or are free to join at will. Groups include such diverse topics as serious protest groups that tend to use Facebook to try and raise money by donations or add numbers to petitions; and groups that are made 'just for fun'; indeed that is one of the categories creators can place their group.

Clearly an important Facebook group is the h2g2 group which is both serious and jovial.

Here is a brief selection of categories and a sampling of the groups contain therein.

  • Politics - Campaign against being PC, After 10 Downing Street
  • Religion - 1,000,000 Christians united, one God
  • Animals - RSPCA, Rainforest Alliance

Events

Events are often attached to groups within Facebook, but they are also available for any user who wishes to create one. They allow information to be displayed on a page, including (presumably) the details to reach the event being advertised. The creator can invite his/her friends to the event and they are able to indicate whether they will be coming, won't be coming or may be coming. The creator is also able to set invitation rules to the event, ranging from only those invited may attend, to friends of those invited may attend to anyone may attend. This however has caused problems with free-for-all raves being advertised and many more guests attending than had been expected. Users are able to comment on and discuss the event in a similar way to a group. Events take a similar amount of effort to set up as groups. If an event only has a few details and invitees then constructing an event is likely to require more effort than is necessary, otherwise making an event can create large time savings.

Facebook Banned

So far three, countries have banned Facebook: China, Iran and Syria.

China banned Facebook, as well as Youtube and several other sites, before the 2008 Olympics to prevent dissent being organised against the games by those wishing to publicise the injustice in Tibet. China gave little official justification for these actions. After the Olympics the rules were relaxed until after the riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang. At this point, the rules were reinstated with the Chinese government stating that Facebook was being used to coordinate riots and protests.

Syria banned Facebook in late 2007, saying that it encouraged attacks on the authorities, although access is sometimes possible by connecting to foreign servers.

Iran has also banned Facebook, stating that it was assisting opposition movements, a belief that could have been justified during Iran's election, as users, primarily students, used web proxies to breach Iran's firewalls.

Privacy

Almost all of the controversy surrounding Facebook concerns its privacy policies. Concerns cover a wide range of areas but can normally be separated into the availability of information from user's pages to the wider public and the rights over uploaded data that Facebook itself possesses.

Concerning the first point, Facebook offers a wide range of privacy settings for the data of any user. These can be set from full public showing - where anyone can visit a site and view and comment on any information to full privacy where only accepted friends are able to view data and only the user him/herself can edit their own information. These settings are easy to apply and should be one of the first things to be customised when an account is set up. Facebook offers advice about managing accounts for a few days after their construction; following this advice, an account can be made far more secure.

A recent example of this was when personal details of a senior intelligence agent's personal life were presented on Facebook by the agent's wife - causing a possible risk despite restrictions on the media on their ability to publish such information. Another problem is the partial failure of security settings. Occasionally when users have set their information to private - so that only their friends should be able to see it - Facebook has not properly concealed the information and it has remained visible to the wider public. Unknowing users, thinking that their information is safe, can upload more sensitive personal details that are then visible to all Facebook users. Facebook users must also be wary about using Facebook to link to other sites. Users who use hyperlinks to travel to other sites can be traced backwards to Facebook by the other sites' owners. In the worst case a user's name and account information are visible creating a risk of phishing attacks.

The most problematic area Facebook possesses is that of their right to possess information that Facebook users upload. The problems mainly concern what should happen to the data - both personal information such as addresses and pictures that the user added - when the user no longer requires them.

Facebook has announced that data is instantly hidden when an account is shut down but concerns were raised about whether the information was truly concealed. A further issue was that when users deleted their information, copies of it remained for some time on Facebook's servers. A Cambridge University research team uploaded a set of pictures, noted the specific web addresses and deleted the photos - the photos could still be accessed by bypassing Facebook and going directly to the photos.

One additional problem concerning privacy is the ability of people to use Facebook to spy on users. Over the last few years there has been an enormous upswing in employers, government and even voters using Facebook to spy on various users.

Here are a few of the more famous examples of Facebook being used as a source of information as users forget who is able to access their peronal lives.

A Darkened Room?

A Swiss woman took time off work saying that she needed to stay out of the sun or artificial light. However her employer (Nationale Suisse) spotted her updating her Facebook status and fired her for lying. The employee then struck back, saying that she used an iPhone (capable of accessing the internet) rather than a computer.

Trashing Facebook

Oxford students were fined thousands of pounds after pouring champagne and eggs over each other to celebrate finishing their coursework. The students were caught after Oxford University accessed their photos that had been uploaded onto Facebook.

Yes We Can!

Barack Obama's chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, nearly created a bigger publicity disaster than his boss. He made the mistake of uploading photos onto Facebook of him groping the breast of a Hillary Clinton cardboard cut-out. Fortunately, he was forgiven by Hillary before being chased off Facebook by overwhelming female attention.

So the safest way to avoid any data you upload ending up in unwanted hands is simply - be careful about what you upload.

Remember: What goes on tour, goes on Facebook1.

A Brief Thought

For the last few years of the millennium decade, the proportions of age groups using Facebook have been fluctuating. The question is, will it lead to Facebook being the world's most widely-used site, or a site used by a few hard-core fans, or will it remain somewhere in the middle? Time will tell.

1For those who don't know, this is a reference to 'what goes on tour, stays on tour'. It means that you can no longer rely on your friends covering up the stupid things you did on holiday.

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